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My Mother, Stella Heinrich, was inspired and aspirational. An award winning hotel cook, she made enough extra money from selling her water-colour landscapes to send my brother Les and myself to good schools. She believed that with a good education we could raise ourselves above the hard work and long hours that it took her to provide for our needs.
Stella Heinrich took jobs in remote areas of WA; in part, because enterprises in those places paid more – but also, in many cases, because she wanted to paint the landscapes of the area. The spectacular landscape was a significant factor when, in the late 1950s, Stella took a job at the staff mess in Wittenoom Gorge for Australian Blue Asbestos (ABA), at that time a fully owned subsidiary of CSR.
It was a well-paid position and, as a bonus, she was encouraged to have her children come and stay with her. The company was also happy to employ my brother Les as soon as he was legally able to work. So, at 15, he had a school holiday job working in the asbestos mill. Financially, we were better off than we had ever been. Les went on to achieve seven distinctions and two exhibitions for his Leaving Certificate, acquired a degree and ran a successful consultancy – until he died a few years ago from mesothelioma.
That’s the turn of the screw. Our family subscribed to the “better yourselves” exhortation; we did our part and, in return, we got early deaths and uneasy minds. Trouble was, there was no responsible person watching. Not from the government, nor from the corporations that stood to gain – or in this case, lose.
Lang Hancock “discovered” Wittenoom Gorge in the early 1930s, and in 1937 started mining blue asbestos from Yampire Gorge. In 1943, he sold a majority share to CSR Limited (ABA became a subsidiary) but remained as manager until 1948 when, according to a CSR Executive:
“…the whole operation was so filthy that we got rid of him and managed the mine ourselves.”
In 1946, the Yampire Gorge mine was closed and the Wittenoom Gorge mine was opened. For most of the years CSR mined asbestos, the operation lost money and, when the mine closed in 1966, it had an accumulated debt of around $2.5 million (1966 dollars).
The mine consisted of a number of stopes (tunnels) and a milling operation. The miners had to crawl in the hot dark stopes bent almost double, as many stopes were no more than a metre high, and choking with dust. It was 20 years into the operation before CSR Management even bothered to bore an airhole from the surface to the mine to supply the miners with fresh air.
Working conditions in the mill were even worse than the mine. The ore from the mine was taken to the mill, via an open conveyor belt, where it was ground down and the fibre extracted. The men worked in clouds of asbestos dust for hours on end, needing flood lights to see even at midday. There is no minimum safe exposure level, a minute at such concentrations is enough to cause lung cancer or mesothelioma.
There is absolutely no question that CSR knew that asbestosis and cancer were extremely likely results of working in conditions such as those they permitted in Wittenoom. Their knowledge was established in the Victorian and Western Australian courts through the judgements of asbestos-caused injury litigation. By 1988, a Supreme Court jury found that CSR had been “recklessly indifferent” to the safety of its workers and that ABA knowingly allowed the processing of asbestos to continue even though the dangers of asbestos fibre inhalation were known as early as 1926.
The court was being conservative, the clangers were expressed in 1898. (Refer to the ‘Annual Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories and Workshops’, Part II. H.M. Stationery Office, 1898, pp. 171-172.) By 1918, overseas insurance companies had already begun to refuse life insurance policies for workers occupationally exposed to asbestos. However, this did not deter industry from mining and manufacturing numerous products containing various types of asbestos for domestic and industrial uses.
In 1962, the matter was formally brought to the attention of the State Premier and Cabinet of the clay (they already knew), but no action was taken because apparently CSR threatened to close the mine if additional restrictions were to be placed upon their mining and milling, and the Premier, Sir David Brand, was always a firm friend of the mining companies. So much for CSR and the Western Australian State Government’s duties of care.
Some workers had been sent to Wittenoom as a result of the Commonwealth Government policy to place new migrants in work situations for a period of two years. There were Italians, Greeks, Finns, French – it was a “United Nations” of immigrant workers, few of whom read or spoke English with any fluency.
More than 20,000 people lived in Wittenoom, including more than 4,000 children – about 2500 under the age of 15. Add to this the family and friends who visited and then try to guess at the number of Aboriginal people – who did not count after all, not even being included in the census. The concern for the Aboriginal people at the time is perhaps reflected in Lang Hancock’s statement in a 1984 television interview, where he suggested forcing unemployed Indigenous Australians -particularly “no-good half-castes” – to collect their welfare cheques from a central location: “And when they had gravitated there, I would dope the water up so that they were sterile and would breed themselves out in the future.”
More than 2,000 former workers and residents from Wittenoom are known to have died from asbestos diseases and the toll is climbing.(As a comparison during the course of the construction of the Snowy River Scheme 100,000 workers were employed, of whom 121 lost their lives in industrial accidents.) Professor Nico van Zanclwijk, the director of the Asbestos Diseases Research Institute, expects data to show there are between 700 and 750 new cases a year. Part of the reason the number of cases continues to rise is the long gap between exposure and the development of the disease, which can be between 20 and 70 years.
This article first appeared on www.amsj.com.au
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