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Landmark Case

Wilkins v. Lanier

Case Number


Protecting worker safety
For 27 years, Nat Thomas Wilkins worked at the Westpoint Pepperell cotton mill in Opelika, Alabama, cleaning and combing cotton. Every day, Wilkins inhaled millions of microscopic cotton dust particles that clogged his lungs, making him so ill he could barely work.

Wilkins was sent to a doctor and placed on medical leave. After helping Wilkins apply for Social Security benefits, the company terminated his employment.

Westpoint Pepperell never informed Wilkins of what it had suspected for years - mill workers like him were in danger of contracting byssinosis, a preventable work-related lung disease commonly known as "brown lung." By the time Wilkins discovered the truth he required a respirator.

The Center took Westpoint Pepperell to court. Evidence showed the industry had concealed information about brown lung disease from its workers.

While the suit could not restore Wilkins' health, it did clear the way for brown lung victims to receive some financial security. Since the case ended in 1983, federal regulations control the level of dust to which cotton workers may be exposed and require textile companies to provide regular medical screenings.