Trade unions have always been concerned with occupational safety and were well aware of the dangers of workplace dusts (particularly in mines) but until the 1970s none knew about the particularly lethal nature of asbestos dust.
Unions insisted that all workplace dust must be kept to a minimum but rarely had the strength or the will to achieve significant improvements. Dust levels were markedly reduced by militant union action at only a few mine sites, most notably at Broken Hill. After all, people thought, didn’t blue collar work always mean dirty work? If dust and danger were an inevitable part of the job (as was often the case before the age of automation and computerisation) then, unions argued, workers must be compensated with special dirt and danger payments. Such payments became the focus of most unions’ work on matters of occupational health and safety.Some workplaces gained bad reputations and unions quietly recommended to their members not to go there, as the Amalgamated Engineering Union did in suggesting to skilled metal tradesman that Wittenoom was best avoided. As well, long-term workers in particular industries heard by word of mouth recommendations of acceptable sites and those to avoid. Workplaces (like Wittenoom) where there was always work available were often places shunned by more experienced workers. This informal networking left out vulnerable new workers, whether Australian born or migrant, who were starting in an industry. They were mostly hungry for a job and, only after starting work, realised their mistake. Worker turnover on these sites was high.
The occupational health and safety environment changed in the early 1970s with Britain’s Robens Report in 1972. It recommended worker participation to end workers’ perceptions that working conditions were beyond their control. Unions became far more knowledgeable and active on occupational health and safety in the new environment and, when all Australians learnt in the mid-1970s of the particularly lethal dangers of asbestos dust, the stage was set for industrial struggles on the issue of asbestos exposure. Protests and strikes concerning asbestos exposure began in the second half of the 1970s and have continued until today.
The unions became determined to end workers’ exposure to asbestos. In December 2003, after decades of union struggle to achieve the goal, a ban prohibited the importation into Australia of all raw asbestos and the vast majority of asbestos-containing products. This was a vital step forward.