Asbestos week 2


On Asbestos Memorial Day 127 November 2009, two events were held in Adelaide to commemorate those who have died or are suffering from asbestos-related diseases.

The first event was held at the Jack Watkins Reserve [see note(1)] which is located near the Islington Railway Workships where many succumbed to asbestos problems.

About 50 people attended the ceremony and a breakfast which was organised by SA Unions, the Asbestos Diseases Society of SA (ADSSA) and SA’s Asbestos Coalition [see note (2)].

Speakers included SA’s Industrial Relations Minister Paul Caica, SA Unions Secretary, Janet Giles and relatives of victims. There was a minute’s silence to remember victims and wreaths were laid at the base of a small monument in the reserve.

The second ceremony was held at Pitman Park in Salisbury where there is a large asbestos victims memorial rock. In years gone by, James Hardie had an asbestos factory in Salisbury. (They also had another factory at Largs North not far from Port Adelaide).

It was organised by the Asbestos Victims Association and the AMWU. This event attracted about 100 people and speakers included the IR Minister Paul Caica, Terry Miller, Secretary of AVA, a Uniting Church minister who acts as a chaplain to victims and their families, a returned sevciceman representing the RAN and relatives of victims. Again, there was a minute’s silence and the laying of flowers at the foot of the memorial rock. A Scottish piper played Amazing Grace as mourners placed their flowers.

A sausage sizzle organised by the AMWU followed this ceremony.

At both ceremonies there were white crosses remembering victims, key campaigners (Jack Watkins and Bernie Banton) and Professor Jack Alpers, late of Flinders University who did much reseach work on asbestos related diseases.

At both ceremonies, those attending were urged by speakers to support ongoing activities by the various groups to prevent more people from being exposed to asbestos dust – whether this occur at work, at home or in public places.

It was also announced that the SA Government has agreed to amend SA’s Dust Diseases Regulations to recognise the year by which employers should have known about the health problems associated with asbestos be 1960 instead of 1971.

This is good news for those making compensation claims for asbestos-related diseases incurred by exposures to the dust prior to 1971.

This comes after a 3 year campaign organised by the Asbestos Coalition, the victims support groups and SA Unions which made calls on SA’s Attorney General, Michael Atkinson, to change the legislation. He turned a deaf ear to these pleas and according to reports was very hostile to those making the demands. Then suddenly, not long before Asbestos Awareness Week, the SA government announced the change. Some cynics believe that the change of heart may have occurred because South Australians will go to the polls in early 2010 and the ALP is trying to recover support it lost after it cut back entitlements to those on workers’ compensation in 2008.

One employer that will be unhappy about the change is BHP-Billiton. Late in 2008 it approached the SA Government seeking to have the year recognised for compensation purposes to be 1979.

This might have had something to do with the fact that ship-building after World War 2 was closely associated with high levels of asbestos dust exposure. Another factor may well have been that the year that BHP closed its Whyalla shipyards just happened to be 1979.

If the government had acceded to their request, former workers at the Whyalla shipyards suffering asbestos-related conditions would have been denied access to compensation. The friendly Big Australian???

At the time, I wrote a letter to The Advertiser about BHP-B’s action [see note (3)]. It should be noted that this publication is an extremely conservative newspaper in the Murdoch stable. To its credit, it had an article that was extremely critical of BHP-B’s attempts to deny asbestos victims their compensation.

Most of the letters progressives write to the editor do not see the light of day, but it generally prints my letters about asbestos and its victims.

I personally think that 1960 is still letting employers off the hook.

Those who know the history of asbestos would be aware that the British Royal Society of General Practitioners and HM’s Factories Inspector were warning of the dangers of asbestos as early as 1889!

Some believe that the ancient Egyptians knew that working with asbestos was dangerous.

Maybe 1900 would be better that 1960!

Andrew (Andy) Alcock


(1) The reserve is a memorial to Jack Watkins, who devoted much of his life to warn the public about the hazards related to asbestos use and to fighting for safer laws regarding its use.

Jack came to Adelaide from Manchester and over the years was a builders labourer, an organiser with the BLF, the UTLC SA’s Asbestos and Hazardous substances Liaison Officer, UTLC/SA Unions representative on SA’s tripartite Asbestos Advisory Committee, a founding member of the Asbestos Victims Association and the founding president of the Asbestos Diseases of SA.

Such was Jack’s devotion to asbestos victims that he continued in the union liaison job long after the funding for it had disappeared.

(2) SA’s Asbestos Coalition is a unique cooperative group with representatives from asbestos victims support groups, law firms assisting those seeking compensation, unions and Safe Work SA.

Date: Mon, 08 Dec 2008 16:44:25 +1030

Mr Melvin Mansell, The Editor, The Advertiser

Congratulations to The Advertiser’s Court Reporter, Andrew Dowdell, for
his article exposing BHP Billiton’s attempt to water down SA’s asbestos
compensation laws (“Asbestos laws ‘too tough for mining giant”, The
Advertiser 8.12.08).

The Advertiser’s editorial of the same date supporting asbestos
victims (“Stand Up for Victims’ Rights”) should also be commended.

The State Government should indeed stand up for the rights of those
dying as a consequence of the past wrongs caused by exposing asbestos
victims to much pain and suffering and an early death because they were
not provided with adequate protection.

Those who know the history of asbestos would be aware that the British
Royal Society of General Practitioners were warning of the dangers of
asbestos as early as 1889! Some believe that the ancient Egyptians knew
that working with asbestos was dangerous.

By the way, recent profits for BHP Billiton have been:

2007 $15.4 billion

2008 $13.7 billion

The corporation is hardly teetering on the economic abyss and yet it
would take away the rights of those who have suffered.

We need to support the rights of victims while demanding that we give
greater protection to all workers against exposure to asbestos dust and
other carcinogens in workplaces.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock

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