Looming Health Disaster

Exposure to dust was an accepted part of the mining industry, so even the abnormally bad conditions at Wittenoom were accepted by managers and many workers.

Traditionally, the mining industry and its regulatory authorities around the country focused on protecting the workers from industrial accidents such as rock falls, rather than prevention of disease. Dr Jim McNulty, former WA Commissioner of Health, explains.
Workplace monitoring
When asbestos began to be mined there were no public indications that it posed a hazard any different from that posed by other kinds of dust. Monitoring of the workplace was variable – even if government inspectors went in to check dust levels, there was limited capacity to enforce action on the companies. Historian Lenore Layman explains.
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Doctors raising the alarm

Two doctors were responsible for raising the alarm about the asbestos risk at Wittenoom. In 1948 Dr Eric Saint, the area flying doctor, was newly arrived from England and so was aware of the health risks from asbestos from his experience there. A few years later in the late 1950s, Dr Jim McNulty was working as the Mines Medical Officer. Both men were appalled at the conditions and both raised the alarm about the health risk for the workers. However the Mines Department, with its own entrenched culture, turned a deaf ear to their concerns. Historian Lenore Layman tells more.
Attitudes of Mines Department
The authorities responsible for monitoring health at the workplace, such as the WA Mines Department, had conflicting interests. The pressures to stimulate growth and development often resulted in health risks being assessed as less importnat that they actually were. Historian Lenore Layman explains.
Click here to listen>>Taking risks with asbestos mining
Asbestos mining companies ignored evidence of potential threats to the health of their workforce and did whatever they could to forestall the introduction of measures which might restrict their operations and profitability. Author Gideon Haigh tells more.

Click here to listen>>Government turning a blind eye
Josef Schrott was a miner working in Wittenoom in the 1960s who witnessed how the inspections were carried out at the minesite. He is critical of the government authorities who seemed to turn a blind eye to dangerous working conditions that they knew could carry a death sentence for the asbestos miners. He describes how advance warnings of the inspectors’ visits ensured that they never saw the real conditions encountered by the miners in their daily work.

Click here to listen>>Growing health concerns at Wittenoom
For Celestina Delpero and her family life was good in Wittenoom as they settled into life in the town, but slowly concerns began to grow amongst the residents about the health effects from the asbestos dust.

Click here to listen>>…but there was no sense of urgency for Wittenoom residents 

According to former Wittenoom resident Doreen Lyons, while the dangers from asbestos were known at the time she and her husband Victor went to Wittenoom in the late 1940s, this knowledge was not communicated to the residents. Doreen realised subsequently that a local flying doctor, Eric Saint, had tried to encourage them to leave, but in terms so vague they had no idea of the everyday dangers they faced from just living and working in the town.

Click here to listen>>Carole Kagi, who lived in Wittenoom as a little girl, remains puzzled about the apparent lack of awareness at the time of the hazards posed by asbestos dust.