The reason for this article is an attempt to draw attention to a killing that still goes on. I worked in Clydeside shipbuilding in the 1950’s. I have worked in the asbestos fog as the laggers mixed the powdered asbestos with water to make paste, called “monkey dung,” to insulate the steam pipes, I have friends who have died from mesothelioma, at the time I was ignorant of the danger, today I am aware and angry. Most of the figures are drawn from the excellent book; Incubating Death: Working with Asbestos in Clydeside Shipbuilding and Engineering, 1945-1990 by Ronald Johnston and Arthur McIvor
Most people will be aware of the “Clyde built” reputation but not so many will know of the price that was and is still being paid by those workers who created that reputation.
At least 3500 people in Great Britain die each year from mesothelioma and asbestos related lung cancer as a result of past exposure to asbestos. Annual numbers of deaths are predicted to go on rising into the next decade. Asbestos killed 50,000 people in the 30 years to 1998, and the toll will continue to rise, because illnesses resulting from working with asbestos can take up to 60 years to manifest themselves”.
Asbestos was used extensively as a building material in the United Kingdom from the 1950’s through to the mid 1980’s. In spite of its dangers to the health of those exposed to it being voiced by the scientific world from as early as the 1930’s. It was cheap and effective, the two criteria most important to big business. Although some of this material has been removed over the years, there are many thousands of tonnes of asbestos still lurking in buildings waiting to kill. It is estimated that over half a million non-domestic premises currently have some form of asbestos in them. There is extensive repair and removal work, which will continue for the foreseeable future.
Analyses of mesothelioma deaths indicate that many deaths are due to heavy asbestos exposures in heavy industries like shipbuilding and railway engineering in the past. If current control measures are not adhered to, and when profit is god, that is a strong possibility, asbestos removal workers are now potentially at the highest risk, as are workers involved in the refurbishment, repair or maintenance of buildings – such as plumbers, carpenters and electricians.
Grossly unhealthy and lax working conditions produced high levels of exposure: “occupational health standards in relation to asbestos were particularly poor in the Turner’s Asbestos Cement factory in Clydebank and also in all the Clyde shipyards and building sites. Widespread exposure to asbestos in these workplaces, especially from the 1920’s to 1960’s, incubated a mesothelioma time bomb which is currently exploding across Scotland.”
By 1885, Glasgow was home to nineteen asbestos manufacturers and distributors; by 1900, the industry had grown considerably, the Glasgow Post Office Directory listed fifty-two asbestos manufacturers. Asbestos in the central belt of Scotland was big business.
Throughout what can be called “the asbestos century” workers were kept in ignorance of the dangers of asbestos and sadly society tolerated a certain level of death and disability in industry. Throughout this period employers and managers were allowed a virtual free hand by a callous state unwilling or unable to implement the sufficiently tough measures needed to protect citizens effectively, both in the workplace and in the community. Scientists predict that by the year 2025, twenty thousand Scots will have died from asbestos diseases.
Because of the Scottish central belt’s heavy industry, Scottish incidence of asbestos-related disease is very high, the rates in the West of Scotland much higher again, while the rates in the Clydebank district are off the radar. Between 1986-1995, the standardized mortality rate (SMR) for mesothelioma in Clydebank was 1100 compared to the average British SMR of 100.
A more accurate method for quantifying the number of asbestos-induced lung cancer deaths and one which is bound to yield far higher statistics is found in a September statement by a spokesperson for the Health & Safety Executive (H&SE): “it is estimated that for every death due to mesothelioma, there are two from asbestos-induced lung cancer.” The September statement also predicts that the death toll from asbestos-related diseases in Britain could reach between 5,000 to 10,000 annually. In response to this escalation of preventable deaths, the H&SE has announced plans to “target guidance at the specific occupational groups such as construction & demolition workers, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, painters & refurbishers which it suspects as still being at risk.”
Published in November, 1994, The Statistical Supplement (ISBN: 0-7176-0852-2) to the 1993/94 Annual Report of The Health and Safety Commission confirmed the continuing upward trend in deaths from asbestos-related diseases in Britain and predicted that the number of deaths from these diseases will increase “very probably until 2010 and possibly up to 2025.” Since 1981 the number of compensated asbestosis cases has trebled.
As the asbestos deaths from the heavy industries are calculated and become statistics the new waves of victims are coming forward, as if we have learned nothing. Where is the anger?
Concern was expressed in this report about the occurrence of asbestosis resulting from exposure after the introduction of the 1969 Asbestos Regulations which are admitted to have had limited effect in controlling asbestos-related occupational disease. There is no media headlines decrying this continuing slaughter. 2010 and asbestos still kills.
Of course a reason for the 1969 Asbestos Regulations having limited effect is the fact that we live in a capitalist society and though there may be regulations governing working with asbestos, time is money and profit is the name of the game. So corners will be cut, blind eyes will be turned. Pressure will be brought to bear on employees, the dangers can be overlooked as the effects are not immediate, not like falling off dodgy scaffolds or having your arm torn by a machine. This type of preventable death is murder, murder by capital, an indictment against a system that puts profit before life and limb.