On April 27, 1978, a concrete cooling tower at a power plant being constructed on Willow Island in West Virginia, collapsed, killing 51 workers. This was one of the largest industrial disasters of the era, another symbol of the lack of attention to workplace safety in the United States.
The 1970s saw the construction of a new generation of coal-fired power plants in Appalachia. Several were constructed along the Ohio River. One was at Willow Island, West Virginia, which is a rural area in Pleasants County, bordering on Ohio. There were already two power generators there but two gigantic additional ones were to be built, with a capacity of 1,300 megawatts. By late April, the first was finished and the second was nearing completion.
On April 27, the contractor was pouring concrete to complete the tower. This was something that took several days, with a load each day. But that day, as a huge bucket of concrete was being raised, the cable that held the bucket began to slacken. The crane pulling it up then fell toward the tower. As it hit the tower, the concrete poured the previous day, not yet firm, began to collapse. The scaffolding holding the whole thing up began to crumble. There were 51 workers on that scaffolding and they all died.
Not surprisingly, this was a disaster that was easily preventable. There were many safety lapses, as was far too common in the construction industry. The fact that the scaffolding was attached to concrete that was not fully set was perhaps the most egregious. While this was a worst-case scenario, it’s not as if those can’t happen on giant construction projects. Basically, the contractor, a New Jersey based firm named Research-Cottrell, which specialized in building gigantic power plants, was hurrying the work to maximize profit. There were also missing bolts, bolts that did not meet quality control standards, a lack of escape routes, and modifications made without the proper engineering review. This was the finding of OSHA, which investigated this horrible incident.
In the end though, Research-Cottrell was barely punished. One problem with OSHA is that business was hostile to it from the very beginning and fought hard to limit the kinds of finds the agency could issue. So for 51 dead workers, the company was fined a whopping $85,500. Total. That’s $1,700 per dead worker. There was a chance for further punishment. OSHA sent the case to the Department of Justice for further investigation. The DOJ placed the case before a grand jury, but no charges were ever filed and the incident just sort of disappeared.
This is not a moment in our labor history that led to any long-term change. It didn’t lead to strikes or legal changes or social movements. But these deadly events, where workers lives were sacrificed for profit without legal consequence to those responsible, also need to be remembered. Despite how the Triangle Fire changed America, the vast majority of workplace disasters have led to little permanent change except for broken families and sorrow.
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