New Silica Rules Might be Too Late for Me, But It’s Never Too Late to Save a Life

My name is Tommy Todd, and I wish I could be in Washington, DC for the announcement of the new silica rules today. It’s been a long time coming, but I can’t. I’m too damn sick.

Tommy is my name, not a nickname. I’ve got two brothers, named Eddie and Bobby. We’ve got simple names. My older brother was a union Ironworker. Our dad was a truck driver, and my younger brother fell right in there with him. I don’t know how I got to be a Bricklayer. I guess I was in the right place at the wrong time.

My first brick job was at Fort Sill, Okla. For two years I remodeled old army barracks, one right after the other. I loved working with my tools and with my hands. I loved the guys I worked with and the sense of accomplishment.

Masonry lasts forever. I still drive by places I worked on as a green apprentice, and I’m proud of it. You think about how people have been building with brick and stone for thousands of years. You see the way bricks can tie together to keep a wall or building secure and standing. It’s a work of art.

One old guy I worked with was named Dale Brennan. He took me under his wing and got me going to church. He took a shining to me and taught me all the little tricks of the trade. I showed him respect and kept the load off him. I was strong as a bull back in those days.

Another old guy who meant a lot to me was Richard Pippin. As a matter of fact, we just lost Richard a few months ago to silicosis. He slowly suffocated to death.

I’ve got it, too, now. My breathing gets worse as time goes by. It comes from the silica dust we worked with. It’s gotten to the point where I can’t hardly do nothing. I get short of breath if I exert myself. Hell, I can’t even walk 200 yards without having to sit down and huff and puff.

I’ve got oxygen, but I only use it if I have to. Mostly, I use an albuterol inhaler. It’s a life saver.

Maybe it sounds like I’m an idiot, but I loved everything about my job. If I would have known how it was harming me and killing me, I’d have made damn sure to protect myself, because I used to run those quickie saws without a mask or any dust retardant or anything. I’d use the saw to cut bricks, and the dust would be flying everywhere. I looked like Casper the Ghost. The dust was so thick my nose was stopped up so I couldn’t breathe. I’d have white stuff around my mouth. It would be caked up on my clothes, my face and arms and in my hair.

Here’s something that just kills you. Every day, I brought that poison silica dust back home to my family on my clothes. When we re-carpeted our living room floor, there was so much of that damn sand on the hardwood floors you could scoop it out with a shovel. It was in the air every time someone walked across the carpet. It was harming my family, but I’m the one who ended up with lung cancer.

Here’s something I’ve learned. Young people think they’re 10 feet tall and made of steel. We’re not good at protecting ourselves. But as working people, we’re good at protecting each other. We take care of each other. Older guys used to look out for me, and that’s why I’ve been an activist so long for these new rules from the Department of Labor, and I’m glad we finally got them.

I made a good living. I worked hard and took care of my family. We had a roof over our heads and good food to eat. I have a little farm east of Lawton. I got some hay and a few head of cattle, but I’m too young to be this damn old. Soon I’ll be 65. I just hope I’ll be around to see my grandkids grow up.