The Asbestos Hazard
Twentieth century power stations contained great quantities of asbestos in the form of asbestos products to insulate the steam driven generating plant. Asbestos coverings (such as that on the turbine pictured), mattresses, packings, jointings, lagging, cloth, rope, board and conduit became essential to power generation. The era of the East Perth Power Station (1916-1981) coincided with the rise and fall of this use of asbestos and therefore with the greatest exposure of power station workers to potentially deadly asbestos fibres.
Many of these workers became victims of a wave of asbestos related disease at a time when they had no idea of the danger they were in. No safety precautions were taken against the asbestos threat until the 1970s, in the station’s last years. It will never be possible to know exactly how much of the respiratory disease which injured and killed East Perth workers was caused by asbestos fibres because medical surveys were not carried out and diagnoses were not made. Nevertheless the decades since the 1970s have seen the toll of asbestos-related illness and death rise among the former workforce.East Perth Power Station was Australia’s first central power station meeting the energy needs of an entire metropolitan region. It was coal fired and steam powered. Built close to Perth’s centre on the banks of the Swan River, the station grew with Perth’s rising demand for electricity. Until the mid-1950s, if the station’s pant failed, Perth’s lights went out, trams stopped, industries shut down, and daily life and housewives’ routines were disrupted.East Perth Power Station has a fascinating history peopled mainly with skilled maintenance and operational workers, as well as the coal shovellers who moved massive amounts of Collie coal. It was a dirty, dusty, hot, noisy and dangerous workplace but workers were proud of the essential job they did.
If you would like to know more about the history of East Perth Power Station and the electrification of Perth, about how twentieth century life was changed by electricity, and about industrial East Perth and its people – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous – go to: