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CONTENTS

Lecture Information

Introduction

Development of the Industry

Working Conditions

History of Health Concerns

Contamination of the Town

Phasing down Wittenoom

Chronology of Events

Safety Laws in WA Today

Conclusion

Review Questions

References and Further Reading

Glossary

CHRONOLOGY OF EVENTS

Adapted from the 1994 Report of the Select Committee Appointed to Inquire into Wittenoom

1st Century
AD

Roman historian Pliny noted that slaves wearing asbestos cloth sicken and die, and described the use of respirators made from animal bladders.

1898

British factory safety inspectors expressed concern about the 'evil effects' of asbestos dust.

1906

British Parliamentary Commission confirmed first cases of asbestos deaths in factories, and recommended better ventilation and other safety measures.

1911

Royal Commission into working conditions in gold mines in Australia revealed widespread lung disease. Ventilation laws were introduced.

1917

Occurrence of crocidolite in Hamersley Region first noted at the Mines Department.

1918

Prudential Insurance Company in the US produced an actuarial study showing premature death in the asbestos industry. Other companies began increasing premiums and refusing insurance.

1926

A sick asbestos worker filed the first successful claim for compensation to the Massachusetts Industrial Accidents Board. Over the following three years several hundred further claims were filed.

1927

Asbestosis was given its name.

1929

Johns Manville Corporation, the world's largest asbestos miner/manufacturer, was served with 11 writs by asbestos victims. Claims were settled out of court with secrecy orders.

Metropolitan Life Insurance company in the US found that half the men working at Johns Manville and Raybestos asbestos plants for more than three years developed lung disease.

1930

British Home Office survey found widespread asbestos disease in UK factories.

1935

Inspector of Factories and Shops in Western Australia reported on the effect of asbestos dust on the lungs of workers in the James Hardie factory in Perth.

1936

Lang Hancock 'discovered' the Wittenoom blue asbestos (crocidolite) deposits and later began pick and shovel mining.

1937/38

The demand for long blue asbestos fibre in 1937-38 created a small boom in the area. Many prospectors were engaged in the production of hand cobbed long fibre.

1938

CSR Ltd sent senior executive M.G. King to the US, Canada, South Africa and Europe to study asbestos mining and manufacturing. This was the start of regular contact between CSR and Johns Manville, including further overseas trips in 1947 and 1952.

German researchers identified six cancer deaths among asbestos textile workers. Later animal studies confirmed asbestos dust kills mice.

US adopted a 'safe' dust limit of 176 particles of asbestos per cubic centimetre in the workplace.

1938/43

Some milled asbestos fibre was produced by West Australian Blue Asbestos Fibres Ltd and Mr L. G. Hancock in Yampire and Wittenoom Gorges. The former company closed down in 1941. Hancock and Wright's interests were taken over in 1943 by Australian Blue Asbestos Ltd. Mr L. G. Hancock was retained as manager until 1948.

1939

Western Australia Commissioner of Public Health and Chief Inspector of Factories found respiratory disorders among James Hardie workers.

1940

Hancock began mining at Wittenoom. Plant opened in 1943, and CSR took over in 1948.

1943

Yampire Mine opened. Production to 1946 is estimated at 15,000 tons ore for about 300 tons asbestos fibre.

Saranac laboratory in New York confirmed the link between asbestos and cancer. Johns Manville suppressed the report.

A report on an asbestos mill at Zeehan in Tasmania (owned and operated by a CSR subsidiary) said that asbestos dust is a health hazard, and discussed methods of eliminating it.

1944

Mines inspector Adams reported on the 'dust menace' at Wittenoom and discussed the need to reduce dust levels.

First warning of asbestos dust at Wittenoom - the WA Assistant State Mining Engineer reported on the dangers of the dust being generated.

1946

Wittenoom Mine opened. Production to 1956 was 590 000 tons of ore, from which about 20 000 tons of asbestos fibre was recovered. Yampire Mine closed.

Residential settlement was established in Wittenoom Gorge, about 1 kilometre downstream from the Wittenoom mine and mill.

Mines Department Inspector Adams described dust conditions at Wittenoom as 'terrific'.

Wittenoom mine manager wrote to head office about the first known asbestosis case, a man named Dignam.

Australian Workers Union first argued for the inclusion of a dust allowance in the award. The claim was not allowed.

Known asbestos death toll reached 235 in Britain, 16 in France, 30 in Italy.

1947

Building of the town of Wittenoom at the entrance to Wittenoom Gorge commenced, because of a lack of a suitable area for expansion at the settlement. The town was located 10 kilometres from the Wittenoom Mine and mill.

1948

7 July: The town was named Wittenoom.

13 May: Australian Workers Union asked for inspection at Wittenoom. A diesel engine was stopped because of diesel emissions in the mine. It was subsequently found the air filter on the engine was clogged with dust.

Dr Eric Saint, Government Medical Officer, wrote to the head of the Public Health Department of Western Australia warning of the dust levels in the Wittenoom mine and mill, the lack of extractors and the dangers of asbestos and asbestosis. He warned that the mine will produce the greatest crop of asbestosis the world has ever seen.

Dr Eric Saint told Wittenoom mine management that asbestos is extremely dangerous, and that men exposed would contract chest disease inside six months.

Mr L. G. Hancock was replaced as manager at Wittenoom mine.

Over the following three years dust levels at the mine and mill were regularly monitored at six to eight times 'safe' levels. Further warnings were given to mine management. No improvement in conditions was noted.

1949

15 July: Australian Workers Union argued at an arbitration hearing for the payment of a dust allowance. Mill workers were awarded an extra sixpence (5 cents) per hour. The Award was not amended until 1957 to include a dust allowance because of 'excessive' dust nuisance.

November: The Occupational Health Committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council suggested that consideration should be given to the Industrial Hygiene Unit at Sydney University undertaking a field investigation at Wittenoom.

1950

State Mining Engineer reported insufficient attention to safety regulations and ventilation at Wittenoom.

WA Commissioner for Public Health reported to his Minister that "Asbestos dust, if inhaled, constitutes a very grave risk and is, if anything, worse than silicosis".

1951

17 August: Wittenoom had 150 houses and a population over 500.

September: The work force at Wittenoom consisted of: 97 underground and bench workers, 34 mill operators, 62 tradesmen and 82 town site workers.

WA adopted a 'safe' dust limit of 176 particles per cc. Wittenoom readings were continually off the scale at 1 000 particles. Mines and Health departments took no action apart from issuing further warnings.

Commissioner for Public Health wrote to the Under Secretary for Mines advising that: "The hazard from asbestos is considerably greater than that from silica.......we have reason to believe that attention to this aspect of mining operations at Wittenoom has been inadequate in the past".

27 October: A new power plant and power house was installed at Wittenoom Mine. Electric locos were in operation and the mechanisation of mining was complete. Over 260 men were employed in the operation.

1953

Colonial Mine started. Production to 1966 is estimated at 2.66 million tons of ore for about 130 000 tons of asbestos fibre). Access roads to new mine were started.

19 August: Mines Inspector reported the installation of dust collectors should: "prevent much of the dust which is exhausted to the atmosphere and drifts down and back into the (Wittenoom) mill. The worst feature of the mill is the cloud of dust which arises from the mill and then either drifts down to the ground or blows down the gorge" (towards the settlement about 1 kilometre away).

December: A series of reports by Mines Inspectors indicated excessive dust in the mill.

1954

Mines Inspector Ibbotson described conditions at Wittenoom as a 'disgrace'. The following year he threatened to close the mine.

7 August: Production at Wittenoom Mine was increased to over 10 000 tons of ore a month. The power house was completed, output was 1800 kilowatts.

1955

October: The State Government requested the Federal Government subsidise the Wittenoom (asbestos) Mine at the rate of £5 ($10.00) a short ton. Wittenoom asbestos was uncompetitive compared to supplies from South Africa.

Dr Richard Doll in the UK produced the most comprehensive survey to date linking asbestos dust with lung disease.

1957

Mill workers were awarded an extra sixpence (5 cents) per hour for working in 'excessive' dust conditions by a mining board of reference.

1958

Closure of the Wittenoom Mine. Wittenoom Mill continued to treat ore from the Colonial Mine (12,222 tons of asbestos fibre were produced in 1957).

Dust reducing equipment was installed in the Wittenoom mill. The dust allowance was reduced to three pence per hour for mill workers.

5 March: A representative of Australian Workers Union requested an unannounced inspection of the mill by the Mines Workman's Inspector, because of the dusty conditions.

25 March: Assistant Mines Inspector made an unannounced visit to investigate the dust problem at the Wittenoom Mill.

13 June: Colonial Mill opened. Wittenoom Gorge Mill was still operating. Production target was 25,000 tons.

1959

Annual Report of the Public Health Department expressed concern about numbers of Wittenoom men affected by asbestosis and their relatively young age and the extremely short dust exposures.

Public Health Department WA investigated the occurrence of silicosis and asbestosis in miners employed at Wittenoom.

February. Sleggs C. reported the presence of mesothelioma in South African crocidolite workers. Published in Johannesburg Pneumoconiosis Conference Proceedings, 1960.

WA Health Department official Dr James McNulty discovered six cases of lung damage among Wittenoom workers. He warned the mine manager, and wrote the first of a series of warnings.

1960

January: X-ray survey by the Public Health Department indicated there was considerable silicosis/asbestosis in the Wittenoom workforce. Immediate dust suppression requested.

Closure of Wittenoom Mill. All milling was now conducted at Colonial Mill.

Dr J. McNulty of Public Health Department diagnosed the first mesothelioma case arising from Wittenoom. The patient had worked at the mine for two years in the late 1940s. (Published 1962).

14 July: WA Mines Department received a reply from the South African Acting Government Mining Engineer indicating methods of airborne dust measurement and dust control and was informed of the problems of asbestosis and silicosis in South African asbestos industry.

26 October: Dr J. McNulty informed Mines Department of results of chest X-rays taken in September 1960. Out of 199 workers, 25 showed early signs of asbestosis/silicosis, and 19 showed advanced development. Evidence indicated increasing severity with increased duration of exposure.

Wagner paper was published. A 'new' disease, mesothelioma (fatal cancer of the lining of the lungs), was discovered among people exposed to asbestos in South Africa.

Annual report of WA Commissioner for Public Health said working at Wittenoom is thirty times more dangerous than any other mining.

1961

Dr G. Oxer, CSR Medical Officer, sought Public Health Department advice regarding the danger of blue asbestos, then wrote to Mr Frank Sheehan, Clerk of Council from the Tablelands Shire Council, advising him of the dangers. His concern was aroused by an inquiry from Mr Sheehan about the danger of asbestos tailings being used for roads, driveways and children's playgrounds.

May: Production of asbestos fibre increased from 260 tons per week to 500 tons per week.

First case of mesothelioma was detected among ex Wittenoom workers. Man dies.

Britain cut the maximum exposure level of asbestos in the workplace from 176 to five particles per cubic centimetre.

October: Dr J. McNulty requested a meeting between the management of Australian Blue Asbestos Ltd and representatives of the Public Health Department and the Mines Department to discuss the problems of asbestosis in the workforce and high dust levels. There was agreement at the meeting that attempts would be made to improve the ventilation in the mine and the mill, and to institute a system of improved fibre and dust counting.

1961/65

More than 100 cases of lung disease found among Wittenoom workers and ex-workers - more than for all the other mines in Western Australia.

1962

Dr J. McNulty wrote to the CSR's consultant physician warning of the dangers of exposure to asbestos. Included were results of medical examinations carried out on workers at the site, which drew attention to the significant number of men seriously affected at early ages and from short exposures.

October 23: Major collapse occurred in the Colonial Mine.

December 15: Dr J. McNulty of the Public Health Department published an account of the first victim of mesothelioma from Wittenoom Mine in The Medical Journal of Australia.

1963

October 9: Long Wall Stoping suggested as a way of increasing efficiency of mining operation.

1964

Public Health Department requested an expert from NSW (Gersh Major) to measure and report on the dust concentrations in the mine and mill.

1965

25 July: Mines Inspector reports continued to indicate dusty conditions in the mill and mine.

Local council warned that the tonnes of asbestos tailings being spread around Wittenoom could even threaten tourists.

1966

21 August: Colonial Mine, the last operating mine at Wittenoom, closed due to the economics of mining. Total production 1943-1966 was 161 000 tons of crocidolite fibre.

8 October: Mr Gersh Major, from the Occupational Health Unit of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, commenced air sampling program at the Colonial Mill and Mine using long running thermal precipitators.

G. Major of the Commonwealth Health Department was highly critical of dust at the mine and the mill. CSR closed the mine two weeks later.

1969

On the basis of mesothelioma risk, the UK introduced an exposure standard of 0.2 fibres/cc for crocidolite, in an attempt to restrict its use.

1973

2 October: A Public Health Department Inspector reported that tailings at Wittenoom were being sold at $15 per ton for making concrete.

27 October: Air monitoring by Public Health Department - air samples taken in and around the township by Mr Moyle. They were examined in 1975.

1974

First public warning of the dangers of blue asbestos in Bulletin magazine cover story, 'Is This Killer In Your Home?'

1977

July: Air monitoring by Public Health Department - Dr A. G. Cumpston and Mr D.Sykes visited Wittenoom and took air samples. Samples were taken by driving around the town in a car with a sampling head protruding from the boot of the car.

November: Air monitoring by a Mines Inspector - a sample of dust, from a personal sampler worn by a Mines Inspector for half an hour outside the school and one hour outside the hotel, was found to contain approximately 0.2 fibres/cc. This equalled the British threshold limit for occupational exposure. It was decided to embark on a more detailed sampling program.

X-rays were taken of the 146 adults at Wittenoom. No direct evidence of asbestos related disease detected in any x-ray.

Cornelius Maas became the first mesothelioma victim to sue the CSR subsidiary that ran the mine. He died before the case went to court.

1978

14 June: The Wittenoom Trust was set up by CSR to provide financial help to ex-employees affected by asbestos diseases.

August: Wittenoom Health and Works Committee formed.

September: Air monitoring by Public Health Department - a volunteer group of citizens wore personal dust samplers for periods of six hours at a time.

November: Government decided to phase out the town of Wittenoom. Decision followed the publication of a booklet, "The Health Hazard at Wittenoom", containing the results of air sampling and an appraisal of world-wide medical information.

November: Government announced the closure of Wittenoom, based on an appraisal of world wide medical information on the harmful effect of airborne blue asbestos fibres.

1980

Hancock & Wright demolished 13 houses in the town.

October: Long term air monitoring done in the Wittenoom Primary School grounds, using a vertical elutriator.

December: Cabinet decided to ban connection of essential services (water and electricity) to new residents arriving in Wittenoom.

Air monitoring by Public Health Department.

1980-83

Shire of Ashburton closed some Wittenoom streets and completed a kerbing and resealing program. Tailings were removed from town street reserves.

1981

March: The State Government, for the second time, reaffirmed the phasing out of the town and initiated planning for a new tourist resort.

1984

2 April: Air monitoring by Public Health Department.

October: Government phasing out policy modified to ensure that State Government existing facilities and services and the Fortescue Hotel would be maintained until alternatives became available.

1985

Hancock & Wright demolish about 60 houses in the town.

26 March: Air monitoring - Wittenoom Health and Works Committee. Wittenoom Health and Works Committee commissioned the Geraldton Building Company to undertake the Wittenoom Environmental Engineering Study, which involved air monitoring.

18 December: Wittenoom Primary School closed.

1986

March: Air monitoring program - Department of Conservation and Environment. "Wittenoom Airborne Asbestos Study" 322 samples from 7 stations.

1987

May: State Government demolished buildings and removed asbestos tailings from 34 acquired properties.

1988

First victories in court for Wittenoom mesothelioma victims. Judge ruled CSR acted with 'continuing, conscious and contumelious' disregard for its workers' safety.

25 May: First successful common law claim by an ABA employee with mesothelioma.

28 May: First common law claim by a former wharf labourer, who loaded blue asbestos from Wittenoom onto ships at Point Sampson.

June: State Government demolished buildings and cleaned up 15 acquired properties including the school.

27 September: CSR acknowledged liability for asbestos related disease at Wittenoom.

1989

January: First successful common law claim for mesothelioma from a past Wittenoom town resident who lived there as a child.

16 December: Wittenoom Police Station was closed.

Wittenoom toll topped 500. National Health and Medical Research Council predicted the final toll would be two thousand.

1990

January: Durmar Motel demolished.

March: Air monitoring by Shire of Ashburton - personal samples obtained on 2 Shire workers based in Wittenoom.

19 March: Wittenoom Nursing Post, based at the old hospital, was closed.

April: Shell garage was demolished.

1992

February: Inquiry into asbestos issue commenced.

May: Air Monitoring - NIOHS/Wittenoom Inquiry Study.

August: Nevill Report published.

September: Inquiry reports sent to Premier Carmen Lawrence MLA.

Recommendations of the Nevill Report were rejected by Cabinet.

31 October. Fortescue Hotel was closed.

4 November: Hon Ernie Bridge MLA, Minister for the North West, announced that Government would continue its policy to phase-down activity in Wittenoom and demolish all Government-owned buildings there, including the Fortescue Hotel.

1993

August: Hancock sold 74 blocks and 4 houses in Wittenoom. The blocks were sold for $150 - $300.

August: The Deputy Premier, the Hon Hendy Cowan MLA, visited Wittenoom and announced that he wanted to accelerate a strategy to deal with the problem of asbestos contamination in the town and surrounding areas.

November: The airport was officially closed.

17 December: WA Government appoints engineering consultants CMPS&F to assess the practicability and cost of cleaning-up asbestos from the Wittenoom town site. The issue needed to be resolved so that the tourism based around the Hamersley Ranges and the Karijini National Park could be placed on a firmer basis.

Decision that Wittenoom residents would not be forced to leave the town, but the Government would not encourage new residents to the town nor would the Fortescue Hotel be re-opened.

1998

February - Resident of Wittenoom advised 25 to 30 residents still living in the town. Telstra have installed solar powered telephone equipment outside the town, to maintain telephone service. Residents and relevant authorities are still negotiating about maintenance of power and water infrastructure.

Shire of Ashburton does not provide any services to the town, hence residents do not pay rates. WA Tourism Commission and Shire of Ashburton discourage tourists from visiting the town.


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[Last Updated: 5 May 1998 - WorkSafe Western Australia]