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Asbestos and Wittenoom – A Chronology of Events

Excerpt from the Report of the Select Committee appointed to inquire into Wittenoom (Appendix 2 – Chronology). To read the full Parliamentary Report, click here.

First Century AD: Roman historian Pliny notes that slaves wearing asbestos cloth sicken and die. Describes the use of respirators made from animal bladders.

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.

1911: Royal Commission into working conditions in gold mines in Australia reveals widespread lung disease. Ventilation laws introduced.

1917: Ocurrence of crocidolite in Hamersley Region first noted at the Mines Department.

1918: Prudential Insurance Company in the US produces an actuarial study showing premature death in ·the asbestos industry. Other companies begin increasing premiums and refusing insurance.

1926: First successful claim for compensation by a sick asbestos worker to the Massachusetts 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 miner/manufacturer served with 11 writs by asbestos victims. Claims settled out of court with secrecy orders.

1929: Metropolitan Life Insurance company in the US finds that half the men working at Johns Manville and Raybestos asbestos plants for more than three years develop lung disease.

1930: British Home Office survey finds widespread asbestos disease in UK factories.

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.

1936: Lang Hancock ‘discovers’ the Wittenoom blue asbestos (crocidolite) deposits and later begins pick and shovel mining.

1937/38: Demand for long blue asbestos fibre in 1937-38 creates a small boom in the area. Many prospectors were engaged in the production of hand cobbed long fibre.

1938: CSR Ltd sends senior executive M.G. 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·in 1947 and 1952.

1938: German researchers identify six cancer deaths among asbestos textile workers. Later animal studies confirm asbestos dust kills mice.

1938: US adopts 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 Yampie and Wittenoom Gorges. The former company closed down in l 941. Hancock and Wright 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 find respiratory disorders among James Hardie workers.

1940: Hancock begins mining at Wittenoom. Plant opens in 1943, and CSR takes over in 1948.

1943: Yampire Mine Opens (Production to 1946 estimated at 15,000 tons ore for about 300 tons asbestos fibre).

1943: Saranac laboratory in New York confirms the link between asbestos and cancer. Johns Manville suppresses the report.

1943: 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: Mines inspector Adams reports on the ‘dust menace’ at Wittenoom and discusses the need to reduce dust levels.

1944: First warning of asbestos dust at Wittenoom -the WA Assistant State Mining Engineer reports on the dangers of the dust being generated.

1946: Wittenoom Mine opens (Production to 1956 was 590 000 tons of ore from which about 20 000 tons of asbestos fibre was recovered.)

1946: Yampire Mine closes.

1946: Establishment of residential settlement in Wittenoom Gorge about 1 kilometre downstream from the Wittenoom mine and mill.

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

1946: Mines Department inspector Adams describes dust conditions at Wittenoom as ‘terrific’.

1946: The major dust problem at Wittenoom was first pointed out by an Inspector of Mines.

1946: Wittenoom mine manager writes to head office about first known asbestosis case a man named Dignam.

1946: Australian Workers Union first argues for the inclusion of a dust allowance in the award. The claim was not allowed.

1947: Building of town of Wittenoom at the entrance to Wittenoom Gorge commences because of a lack of suitable area for expansion at the settlement. Town is 10 kilometres from the Wittenoom Mine and mill.

1948: July 7. Town named Wittenoom.

1948: Australian Workers Union asks for inspection May 13 at Wittenoom. A diesel engine was stopped because of diesel emissions in the mine. Subsequently found air filter on the engine was clogged with dust.

1948: 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 warned about the dangers of asbestos and asbestosis.

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.

1948: Mr L. G. Hancock replaced as manager at Wittenoom mine.

1948: 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.

1949: July 15. Australian Workers Union argued at an arbitration hearing for the payment of a dust allowance. It was not until 1957 the Award was amended to include a dust allowance, because of ‘excessive’ dust nuisance. Mill workers awarded an extra sixpence (5¢) per hour.

1949: 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 mvestlgat1on at Wittenoom.

1950: State Mining Engineer reports insufficient attention to safety regulations and ventilation at Wittenoom.

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

1951: August 17. Wittenoom now has 150 houses and a population over 500.

1951: September. Work force at Wittenoom consisted of

  • 97 Underground and bench work
  • 34 Mill operations
  • 62 Tradesmen
  • 82 Townsite work

1951: WA has adopted a ‘safe’ dust limit of 176 particles per cc. Wittenoom readings continually off the scale at 1000 particles. Mines and Health departments take no action…. apart from issuing further warnings.

1951: 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’.

1951: October 27 – A new power plant and power house installed at Wittenoom Mine. Electric locos are in operation and the mechanisation of mining is complete. Over 260 men employed in the operation.

1953: Start of Colonial Mine (Production to 1966 estimated at 2.66 million tons of ore for about 130 000 tons of asbestos fibre). Access roads to new mine started. Audits of mine cut in early 1954.

1953: August 19 – Mines Inspector reports the installation of dust collectors should · prevent ‘ … much of the dust which is exhausted to· 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).

1953: December – A series of reports by Mines Inspectors indicating 1954 excessive dust in mill.

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

1954: August 7 – Production at Wittenoom Mine was increased to over 10 000 tons of ore a month. (Power house completed, output 1800 kilowatts).

1955: October – The State Government requests the Federal Government to subsidise the Wittenoom (asbestos) Mine at the rate of £5 ($10.00) a short ton. Wittenoom asbestos uncompetitive compared to supplies from South Africa.

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

1957: Mill workers awarded an extra sixpence (5¢) per hour for working in ‘excessive’dust conditions by a mining Board of Reference.

1958: Closure of the Wittenoom Mine. Wittenoom Mill continues to treat ore from the Colonial Mine (12,222 tons of asbestos fibre was produced in 1957).

1958: Installation of dust reducing equipment in the Wittenoom mill. Dust allowance is reduced to threepence per hour for mill workers.

1958: March 5 – Representative of Australian Workers Union requests an unannounced inspection of the mill by the Worker’s Inspector because of the dusty conditions.

1958: March 25 – Unannounced visit by Assistant Mines Inspector to investigate the dust problem at the Wittenoom Mill.

1958: June 13 – Colonial Mill opens. Wittenoom Gorge Mill still operating. Production target 25,000 tons.

1959: Annual Report of the Public Health Department expresses concern about numbers of Wittenoom men affected by asbestosis and their relatively young age and the extremely short dust exposures.

1959: Investigation by Public Health Department WA of the occurrence of silicosis and asbestosis in miners employed at Wittenoom.

1959: February. Sleggs C. reports presence of mesothelioma in South African crocidolite workers. Published as Johannesburg Pneumoconiosis Conference Proceedings, 1960.

1959: WA Health Department 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: X-ray survey by the Public Health Department indicates January considerable silicosis/asbestosis in the Wittenoom workforce. Immediate dust suppression requested.

1960: Closure of Wittenoom Mill. All milling now conducted at Colonial Mill.

1960: 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 1940’s. (Published 1962).

1960: July 14 – WA Mines Department received a reply from the South African Acting Government Mining Engineer indicating methods of airborne dust measurement and dust control and were informed of the problems of asbestosis and silicosis in South African asbestos industry.

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

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.

1960: Annual report of WA Commissioner for Public Health says working at Wittenoom is thirty times more dangerous than 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.

1961: May. Production of asbestos fibre to increase from 260 tons per week to 500 tons per week. 1961: First case of mesothelioma detected among ex Wittenoom workers. Man dies.

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

1961: October 2-10. Dr J. McNulty requests 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. 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 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 results of medical examinations carried out on workers at the site drew attention to the significant number of men seriously affected at early ages and short exposures. 1962: October 23. Major collapse in the Colonial Mine.

1962: December 15 – Dr J. McNulty of the Public Health Department publishes 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: Request made by Public Health Department for an expert from NSW (Gersh Major) to measure and report on the dust concentrations in the mine and mill.

1965: July 25. Continued Mines Inspector reports indicating dusty conditions in the mill and mine.

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

1966: October 8. Mr Gersh Major from the Occupational Health Unit of the School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine commences air sampling program at the Colonial Mill and Mine using long running thermal precipitators.

1966: December 1. Closure of the Colonial Mine, the last operating mine at Wittenoom due to the economics of mining. Total production 1943-1966 was 161,000 tons of crocidolite fibre.

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

1969: On the basis of mesothelioma risk, the UK introduces an exposure standard of 0.2 fibres/cc for crocidolite, in an attempt to restrict its use.

1973: October 27. Air Monitoring -Public Health Department. Air samples taken in and around the township by Mr Moyle. They were examined in 1975.

1973: October 2. A Public Health Department Inspector reported that tailings at Wittenoom were being sold at $15 per ton for making concrete.

1974: First public warning of the dangers of blue asbestos: Bulletin magazine cover story, ‘Is This Killer In Your Horne?’

1977: July. Air Monitoring -Public Health Department. Dr A. G. Cumpston and Mr D.Sykes visited Wittenoom to take air samples. Samples taken by driving around the town in a car with a sampling head protruding from the boot of the car.

1977: November. Air Monitoring -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, and it was decided to embark on a more detailed sampling program.

1977: X-rays taken of the 146 adults at Wittenoom. No direct evidence of asbestos related disease detected in any x-ray. 1977: Cornelius Maas becomes the first mesothelioma victim to sue CSR subsidiary that ran the mine. Dies before the case gets to court.

1978: November. Government decides to phase out the town of Wittenoom. Decision follow the publication of a booklet “The Health Hazard at Wittenoom" containing the results of air sampling and an appraisal of world-wide medical information.

1978: September. Air Monitoring -Public Health Department. A volunteer group of citizens wore personal dust samplers for periods of six hours at a time.

1978: June 14. The Wittenoom Trust set up by CSR to provide financial help to ex employees affected by asbestos diseases.

1978: November. Government announces the closure of Wittenoom based on an appraisal of world-wide medical information on the harmful effect of airborne blue asbestos fibres.

1979: August. Formation of the Wittenoom Health and Works Committee.

1980-83: Shire of Ashburton close some Wittenoom streets and complete a kerbing and resealing program. Tailings removed from town street reserves.

1980: Hancock & Wright demolish 13 houses in the town. 1980: October. Long term air monitoring in the Wittenoom Primary School grounds using a vertical elutriator.

1980: December. Cabinet decides to ban connection of essential services (water and electricity) to new residents arriving in Wittenoom.

1980: Air Monitoring – Public Health Department.

1980/83: Shire of Ashburton. Closure of some Wittenoom streets, a kerbing and resealing program completed. Tailings removed from town street reserves.

1981: March. The State Government, for the second time, reaffirms the phasing out of · the town and initiates planning for a new tourist resort.

1984: April 2. Air Monitoring -Public Health Department.

1984: October. Government phasing out policy modified to ensure that State Government existing facilities and services and the Fortescue Hotel are maintained until alternatives are available. 1985: Hancock & Wright demolish about 60 houses in the town.

1985: March 26. Air Monitoring -Wittenoom Health and Works Committee. Wittenoom Health and Works Committee commissions the Geraldton Building Company to undertake the Wittenoom Environmental Engineering Study which involved air monitoring.

1985: December 18. 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 demolishes buildings and removes asbestos tailings from 34 acquired properties.

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

1988: May 25. First successful common law claim by an ABA employee with mesothelioma.

1988: May 28. First common law claim by a former wharf labourer who loaded blue asbestos from Wittenoom onto ships at Point Samson.

1988: June. State Government demolishes buildings and cleans up 15 acquired properties including the school.

1988: September 27. CSR acknowledges 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.

1989: December 16. Wittenoom Police Station is closed.

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

1990: January. Durmar Motel is demolished.

1990: March. Air Monitoring -Shire of Ashburton. Personal samples obtained on 2 Shire workers based in Wittenoom.

1990: March 19. Wittenoom Nursing Post, based at the old hospital, is closed.

1990: April. Shell garage is demolished.

1992: Recommendations of the Nevill Report rejected by Cabinet.

1992: February. Present inquiry into Asbestos issue commences.

1992: May. Air Monitoring -NIOHS/Wittenoom Inquiry Study.

1992: August. Nevill Report published.

1992: September. Inquiry reports to Premier Carmen Lawrence MLA.

1992: October 31 – Fortescue Hotel closes.

1992: November 4 – Hon Ernie Bridge MLA, Minister for the North -West announces that Government will continue its policy to phase-down activity in Wittenoom and demolish all Government-owned buildings there, including the Fortescue Hotel.

1993: August Hancock sell 74 blocks and 4 houses in Wittenoom. The blocks sold for $150 -$300.

1993: 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.

1993: November – Airport is officially closed.

1993: December 17 – Government appoints engineering consultants CMPS & F to assess the practicability and cost of cleaning-up asbestos from the Wittenoom town site.

1993: The issue needs to be resolved so that the tourism based around the Hamersley Ranges and the Karijini National Park can be placed on a firmer basis.

1993: 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.

2022: Wittenoom Closure Bill / Anniversary of Ernie Bridge passing from Mesothelioma. In demolishing town – more people could pass.

*  Report to the Select Committee appointed to inquire into Wittenoom