CSR, Asbestos & Wittenoom

About 10 years ago I was completing my MBA. One of the regular assignments and tasks was to do case studies. I remember that one particularly large and detail one I did was on CSR. I was really looking forward to it. I thought it was a great Australian success story. I was wrong .. and as a result afterwards and still today I go out of my way to try and avoid buying CSR products.

So what happened? Can’t be all that bad. No one really has heard anything about CSR. What could a sugar company do that was that bad? How about being responsible for the greatest single industrial disaster in Australia’s history. For having the blood of thousands of people on its hands. And the worst part … most people don’t know anything about it.

When most people think about Asbestos and Asbestos related diseases in Australia I bet the first name that comes into mind is James Hardie. James Hardie was for many years the evil corporate giant that endangered lives and was responsible for thousands getting ill and dying from Asbestos related diseases. But there is more to the story than just James Hardie. Other Australian companies need to take responsibility and answer for putting profits before the lives of their employees and whole communities when it came to Asbestos.


Wittenoom is was a town located in one of the most beautiful areas of the Pilbara ranges. Set at the mouth of the Wittenoom Gorge 1450 km north of Perth and 460 m above sea level this once thriving settlement is was in the heart of the beautiful Hamersley Range. It is ideally located for people wishing to visit the numerous gorges which cut through the range. However, as Wittenoom is also in a valley of death.

Between 1948 and 1966, CSR, one of Australia’s oldest and most prominent corporations, under its subsidary Australian Blue Asbestos Pty. Ltd (ABA)  operated mines at Wittenoom. During its period of operation, thousands of workers and their families, visitors, tourists, consultants and Government officials were exposed to potentially lethal levels of blue asbestos. Blue asbestos is possibly 100 times more hazardous than white asbestos, as the fibres are much smaller (around 2.5 to 10 micrometres). The inhalation of asbestos results in illness and in most cases death, due to asbestosis,mesothelioma (of which asbestos is the only known cause) and other lung diseases. It is predicted that by 2020, almost a third of the people who passed through Wittenoom during the mines’ operating years will be diagnosed with a fatal disease caused by their dangerous exposures to blue asbestos.

If you go to the WA government website it reads

Travelling to Wittenoom presents a public health risk from exposure to asbestos fibres which may result in contracting a fatal disease, such as mesothelioma, asbestosis or lung cancer. Mesothelioma and lung cancer can develop after even brief exposure to asbestos. The time between exposure to asbestos and the occurrence of cancer can be 20 to 40 years, or even longer. Blue asbestos, the type once mined in Wittenoom, is the most deadly of all types of asbestos. Remnants of blue asbestos are still present in Wittenoom, presenting a serious risk to your health.

So what’d the story behind Wittenoom?

Mr Lang Hancock (father of Gina Rinehart – 2011 Forbes Asia named her as Australia’s richest person) commenced mining blue asbestos at Wittenoom in 1938. However due to the war, there was a shortage of asbestos fibre imports which was used in the asbestos manufacturing industry. Thus in 1943 CSR purchased the Wittenoom mining operations from Mr Hancock and his partners and CSR became one of the major miners and manufacturers of asbestos products in Australia. From 1950 until the early 1960s Wittenoom was Australia’s only supplier of asbestos

The mine was located inside a hill near natural water springs and overlooking the Wittenoom Gorge and at the other end of the gorge, 12 kilometres away, the town of Wittenoom was built to service the mine. The mine consisted of a number of stopes and a milling operation.Working conditions inside the mine were appalling. The tunnels of the mine were less than a metre high, and miners often worked in a kneeling or squatting position gouging out the blue asbestos which was in very thin bands in the hard rock. Working conditions in the mill were even more appalling than the mine. The ore from the mine was then taken to the mill for processing via conveyor belt. Milling was a dry process where the ore was ground down and the fibre then extracted. Conditions were so bad that the men needed flood lights to see through the dust at midday. The men worked in these clouds of asbestos dust for hours on end, when only one minute at such concentrations to blue asbestos fibres would have been enough to cause lung cancer or mesothelioma.

The climate at Wittenoom made the situation worse. During summer it was very hot and humid, making working conditions in the poorly ventilated, dusty mine and mill even more uncomfortable.  CSR had problems attracting and retaining workers to the mine. Most would stay for only a few months and then move on. In 1951 CSR wrote to the Department of Immigration asking for help. CSR sent representatives to European countries, such as Italy, to recruit workers. Many European immigrants unable to find work in their own country signed a two-year contract with CSR to work at the Wittenoom mine and mill. They were unable to leave Wittenoom before the end of their contract unless they paid back CSR their fare, which for most was impossible.

To make matters worse … in their ignorance, the original settlers used asbestos tailings to break the monotony of the Pilbara’s harsh red soils. Hence asbestos was used in gardens, in the school yards, on the roads and at the race track. Asbestos tailings were even used to build the airport. From workplace to home … asbestos was everywhere.

In December 1966, CSR made the decision to close its Wittenoom works. The decision was made on the basis of economics, rather than safety, because the company considered the venture did not have a profitable future. Thus to the very end the health danger was still not a significant factor in company decision-making.

But how can CSR be responsible if information on the dangers of Asbestos was not known at the time. They wouldn’t have endangers the lives of their works and all of the people living in the near by community if there was information about the dangers … Would they?

Unfortunately the answer is Yes. 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. In 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.

But what was known and when? (From Asbestos Disease Foundation of Australia)

1898: British factory safety inspectors express concern about the “evil effects” of asbestos dust.

1906: British Parliamentary Commission confirms first cases of asbestos deaths in factories, recommends better ventilation and other safety measures

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

1926: First successful claim for compensation by a sick asbestos worker to the Massachuetts Industrial Accidents Board. Over the following three years several hundred further claims filed.

1927: Asbestosis given its name.

1929: Johns Manville Corporation, the world’s largest asbestos mine/manufacturer served with 11 writs by asbestos victims. Claims settled out of court with secrecy order. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company in the US finds that half the men working at Johns Manville plants for more than three years develop lung disease.

1935: Inspector of Factories and Shops in Western Australia reports on the effect of asbestos dust on the lungs of workers in the James Hardie Factory in Perth.

1938: CSR Limited send Senior Executive, MG King to the US, Canada, South Africa and Europe to study asbestos mining and manufacturing. It is the start of regular contact between CSR and Johns Manville, including further overseas trips between 1947 and 1952.

US adopt a “safe” dust limit of 176 particles of asbestos per cubic centimetre in the workplace.

German researchers identify six cancer deaths among asbestos textile works. Later animal studies confirm asbestos dust kills mice

1939: Western Australian Commissioner of Public Health and Chief Inspector of Factories find respiratory disorders amoung James Hardie workers.

1943: Sarnac Laboratory in New York confirms the link between asnestos and cancer. John Manville suppresses the report.

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

1944: First warning of asbestos dust at Wittenoom – the WA Assistant State Mining Engineer reports on the danger of dust being generated. Mines inspector Adams reports on the “dust menace” at Wittenoom and discusses the need to reduce dust levels.

1946: Known asbestos death toll reaches 235 in Britain, 16 in France and 30 in Italy.

Wittenoom mine manager writes to head office about first known asbestosis case – a man named Dignam.

Mines Department Inspector Adams describes dust conditions at Wittenoom as “terrific”

1948: Dr Eric Saint tells Wittenoom mine management that asbestos is extremely dangerous and that men exposed would contract chest disease inside six months. He writes to the Public Health Department in Perth that the mine will produce the greatest crop of asbestosis the world has ever seen.

Over the following three years, dust levels at the mine and mill are regularly monitored at six to eight times “safe levels”. Further warnings are given to mine management. No improvement in conditions is noted.

1950: WA Commissioner for Public Health report to his Minister that “Asbestos dust, if inhaled, constitutes a very grave risk and is, if anything, worse than silicosis”.

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

1951: WA has adopted a “safe” dust limit of 176 particles per cubic centimetre. Wittenoom readings continually off the scale at 1000 particles. Mines and Health Department take no action apart from issuing further warnings.

Commissioner for Public Health writes to the Under Secretary for Mines 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.”

1954: Mines Inspector Ibbotson describes conditions at Wittenoom as a “disgrace”. The following year he threatens to close the mine.

1955: Dr Richard Doll in the UK produces the most comprehensive survey to date linking asbestos dust with lung disease.

1959: Western Australia Health Deapartment Official Dr James McNulty discovers six cases of lung damage among Wittenoom workers. He warns the mine manager and writes the first of a series of warnings.

1960: Wagner paper published a “new” disease, mesothelioma (fatal cancer of the lining of the lungs) discovered among people exposed to asbestos in South Africa.

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

1961: Britain cuts maximum exposure level of asbestos in the workplace from 176 to 5 particles per cubic centimetre.

First case of mesothelioma detected among ex-Wittenoom workers. The man dies.

1961-1965: More than 100 cases of lung disease among Wittenoom workers and ex-workers – more than for all other mines in Western Australia.

1965: Local council warned that the tonnes of asbestos tailings being spread around Wittenoom could even threaten tourist

1966: G Major of the Commonwealth Health Department is highly critical of dust at the mine and mill. CSR closes the mine two weeks later.

1970: Building unions at workplaces across Australia commence industrial action to ban the use of asbestos.

1973: Wittenoom toll reaches 175. 27 men now known to have died.

1974: First public warning of the dangers of blue asbestos. Bulletin Magazine cover story, “Is This Killer in Your Home?”

1977: Cornelius Maas becomes the first mesothelioma victim to sue the CSR subsidiary that ran the mine. He dies before the case gets to court.

1988: First victories in court for Wittenoom mesothelioma victims. Judge rules CSR acted with “continuing, conscious and contumelious” disregard for its workers’ safety.

1989: Wittenoom toll tops 500. National Health and Medical Research Council predicts the final toll will be 2000.

Wittenoom’s deadly legacy
CSR blue asbestos mining and milling at Wittenoom has had a significant impact on all Australians. Western Australia in particular has the highest rate of the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma than any State in Australia or elsewhere in the world per capita of population. The asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma is uniformly fatal, with an average life expectancy from diagnosis to death of nine months.  Many of those diagnosed are former Wittenoom children who have died of the disease in mid-life.

The story of Wittenoom is very sad and a reminder of what corporate neglience and greed can do … even in Australia … when business is put ahead of people’s lives and safety.

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