Oral Histories of the Asbestos Tragedy in Scotland 

Ronnie Johnston and Arthur McIvor



"I used tae say tae him: ‘Was Peter there today at his work?’ And he used to say: ‘I couldnae tell you. I couldnae see him’. He couldnae see him for the dust. And then I used tae take his overalls and take them out tae the stairs and brush them before I could wash them" – Joiner’s wife.

The utility of historical research is that it gives us the opportunity to learn important lessons from mistakes that have been made in the past. Surprisingly, however, the history of occupational health in Britain has been neglected. Even though the current asbestos disaster has stimulated important work, much of it – with the exception of Geoff Tweedale’s exposé of the asbestos manufacturer Turner and Newall’s health and safety record – has been confined to medical or legal aspects of the work/health interaction in the past. More importantly, there has been no serious attempt to look at the causes and consequences of asbestos-induced industrial disability in the UK from the point of view of those most directly involved – the workers, victims and their families. It is only when their perspectives are incorporated that lessons from the past can be properly learned. Consequently, when we set out to explore the history and social impact of asbestos-related illness in Scotland, we decided to use oral history interviewing as a key part of our methodology.

With the help of Clydeside Action on Asbestos, the principal support agency for asbestos victims in Scotland, we interviewed 31 individuals who had experiences of working with asbestos between 1940 and 1990. The result was a "bottom-up" view of workplace health and safety, and an evocative illustration of how working practices can impact on individuals, families, and working communities. Our study has recently been published as Lethal Work (Tuckwell Press, 2000) and what I’d like to do here in the time I have is to briefly comment on some of our findings. First: a note on oral history methodology.

The pros and cons of oral history

Oral history as a methodology has its strengths and weaknesses. Critics have pointed to the fallibility of memory, which can create problems when recalling events 20, 30 or even more years ago. Respondents are also indicted for exaggeration, bias and embellishment of their ‘stories’. The inter-subjective nature of the interview can lead to respondents telling the interviewer what they think she or he wants to hear. Moreover, memories are intimately affected by the passage of time, being re-ordered, sieved through and reconstructed to give meaning to the present. In postmodern parlance, oral reminiscence inevitably incorporates ‘discourses’ which are not necessarily the respondents’ own. Consequently, some historians continue to claim that documentary source material, written at the time, is intrinsically superior evidence.

However, all historical sources require critical scrutiny. Professional proponents of an oral history methodology accept that there are difficulties in the technique, but that where memories are recorded using tried and tested methods and the material handled sensitively and critically oral history is as reliable and valuable as other projects in the production of historical evidence. This academic rigour applies to sampling and questionnaire construction to ensure representativeness and avoidance of leading and loaded questions. It also requires recognition of and allowance for inter-subjectivity. Moreover, where documentary evidence is also available these materials should be fully exploited and engaged with rather than ignored. With planning and careful handling many of the potential problems of oral history can be minimised. Crucially, tapping people’s memories can be the only way to gain any insights into areas of human experience that remain undocumented. Its key strength is that it enables the voices and feelings of the un-represented in the past to be aired, thus providing a different perspective on social history. Not only does this give us a vivid and evocative window into people’s hidden experiences, but it can also advance knowledge and understanding of issues and problems. This, we would argue, applies to the inner world of the workplace and to the topic of occupational health.

Asbestos in the Scottish workplace

The industrial conurbation in the west of Scotland has had a long association with asbestos. The first asbestos factories were opened here in the early 1870s and the mineral was used across a broad swathe of industries for almost a century, including the building trade, shipbuilding, locomotive manufacture, and heavy engineering. The legacy of this extensive use is that the industrial conurbation of Clydeside now has one of the highest rates of asbestos-related disease anywhere in Britain (30% higher than the average), and the shipbuilding town of Clydebank now has the unfortunate distinction of being the "asbestos-disease capital of Europe" (see graph).

Male mesothelioma deaths in Britain 1986–1995, expressed as standardised mortality rate (SMR), HSE Mesothelioma Area Statistics, 1986–1995 (Figures provided by the HSE Epidemiology and Medical Statistics Unit, Bootle, Merseyside)

The slow spread of hazard awareness and regulation

The basic story of the UK asbestos disaster is now well known but for those that are not familiar with the picture the facts are as follows:

More than 30 years after the first "official" warnings of the health hazards of asbestos dust in the UK in 1898 by factory inspector Lucy Deane, Britain became the first country in the world to introduce laws to protect workers from asbestos dust. However, the Asbestos Regulations 1931 applied only to workers involved in certain processes involved in the manufacture of asbestos. Consequently, a great many workers in occupations not included in these "scheduled areas" – such as building trade workers, insulation engineers, and plumbers – remained exposed. Geoff Tweedale’s brilliant recent study of T&N has highlighted that the major UK asbestos companies were well aware of the dangers of asbestos – including its carcinogenic properties – from the mid 1950s. New regulations came into force in 1960 (Shipbuilding and Ship-repairing Regulations) and in 1970 (Asbestos Regulations, 1969) which included some previously neglected areas, and these were quite specific regarding the installation of adequate ventilation equipment for those working with asbestos. However, although the new legislation afforded workers greater protection, these standards were later found to be seriously flawed. Consequently, many workers remained at risk long after the full extent of the dangers should have been made known to them. A case in point would be Rob Dawber, an ex-railway worker exposed in the late 1970s who died in February 2001aged 45 from mesothelioma. Moreover, the import and manufacture of white asbestos was only banned in the UK in November 1999.

Given these bare facts of the asbestos disaster, how can oral history interviewing expand our knowledge of how the disaster unfolded and what lessons can be learned from analysis of victims’ testimony in Scotland?

"It fell like snow"

Oral history takes us directly to the shop floor, can illustrate the impact of legislation on work practices, and gives us a sense of how much workers and employers were aware of the dangers at the time. What emerges from our study is that legislation was poorly enforced and easily evaded, that profit was frequently prioritised over health and that a "macho" work culture in the shipyards and building sites – where high risks were tolerated – took a long time to erode. We should also remember how unhealthy working conditions were in general. As one shipyard union official noted:

"Nobody attached great importance to asbestos. They knew it wasnae good for your health, but there was so many things in shipbuilding that were bad for your health . . . When you saw the conditions on the Clyde it was like fighting an atomic war with a bow and arrow. You didnae have a chance."

Most asbestos in the shipyards was used for insulation, and it was the laggers who were most closely involved with its use and amongst the first to recognise its toxicity. The nature of this employment, though, required that they worked alongside other trades people, and it is here that the oral history evidence sheds much more light than any documentary sources. For example, one lagger remembered how the nature of the work put other tradesmen in danger:

"We used tae insulate the boilers actually on the boat, and the place was covered in asbestos when we were dain that. And the same in the engine room. There were pipes everywhere . . . You used to saw the stuff. Well the teased up stuff and the dust just floated. It floated round and everybody got their share."

A retired ships’ plumber, now suffering from pleural thickening, remembered how he had got his daily exposure to asbestos:

"I was working in amongst it. Engine rooms, boiler rooms. And when they – you called them stagers then, it would be like scaffolders now – when they were erecting the scaffolding inside the ship, they would turn the batons. The batons would be full of it, and they would reverse them for, you know, for safety, anyone walking on them, and it used to come down like snow."

A simple safety procedure, then, in which scaffolding planks were upturned to prevent workers slipping, was to have drastic effects on many of those who were working far below. A boilermaker corroborated this, saying: "I’m no exaggerating when I say this: it was like snow coming down . . ."

Lack of understanding of the health hazards of asbestos was widespread among the workforce at this time, and this was clearly apparent in some of the interviews. It was a common sight in the shipyards, for example, to see young workers playing with asbestos cuttings. An ex-shipyard labourer recalled how in the 1960s:

"They were throwing this ‘monkey dung’ about and that, and hitting folk in the passing just for a game you know. Nobody knew how dangerous it was. These blokes were laggered in it head-tae-foot."

The sheer amount of asbestos dust in the work atmosphere in the 1950s was described by one respondent in this way:

"I’ve seen times when you couldnae see the other side of the boat. That’s only, what, 40 or 50 feet away? You couldnae see it for the dust."

Another commented:

"A shaft of sunlight came into the compartment, and we were working beside these laggers. And I remember seeing the air literally foggy; thick with this asbestos dust. And it passed through my mind then, I thought ‘this cannot be good for us’."

Therefore, although we have to allow to some extent for memory lapse and embellishment of evidence, these testimonies take us much deeper into the world of work than a factory inspector’s report or trade union minutes. A fatal error then – and one that should not be repeated – was that exposure risk was grossly underestimated. Significantly, this was admitted by Turner & Newall’s medical adviser, Dr. Hilton Lewinsohn, in February 1969:

"This company has been lulled into a false sense of security and has not appreciated in the past the number of employees who have been exposed to asbestos dust."

"The health and safety inspector’s coming"

"I’ve never ever met a factory inspector in 40-odd years of work. I’ve heard he was coming to the site . . . If there were an accident or anything, the buzz went round that the factory inspector’s coming."

These comments from a 60 year-old foreman electrician with mesothelioma suggest that state regulation was thin on the ground in some workplaces, and that when the factory inspectors did make a visit the employers often knew well in advance and took the necessary precautions. This view was echoed by most of our respondents, for example:

"We got a visit now and again but to me they were forewarned…..the site was getting tidied up, and all of a sudden the hard hats had tae be worn you know? So you knew there was somebody coming."

As recently as 1971, only 50 factory inspectors were employed in Scotland, and they were responsible for over 25,000 industrial premises. This meant that on average an inspector made a works visit once every four years. Compounding this was the fact that the HSE and the Factory Inspectorate tended to emphasise safety at work as opposed to health. Before becoming part of the HSE in 1974, the Factory Inspectorate frequently issued safety publications and organised lectures for shop stewards and trade union delegates on industrial safety, and this emphasis ignored the fact that 10 times as many people died from occupational disease in Britain as died in occupational accidents at the time. For example, according to one retired shipyard shop steward convenor: "It was more accidents, you know: ‘Is the staging safe?’ ‘Are you using proper ropes? Proper wires?’"

Workers’ testimony also helps us understand how and why measures to protect workers were only partially effective This is important, given that the HSE’s latest discussion document Developing an occupational health strategy for Great Britain highlights that occupational health legislation has been less effectively enforced than occupational safety legislation. Our oral testimonies bear this out. For example, by the early 1980s there were several disposable masks available, three of which were approved by the HSE for use with asbestos. We learned, however, that many employers continued to issue their workers with unsuitable masks, many of which were uncomfortable to wear for any length of time – usually because the straps cut into the back of the worker’s head. One man who worked with asbestos sprayers on contracts throughout central Scotland in the early 1980s remembers that despite being told to wear masks, he and his colleagues sometimes discarded them because they were so uncomfortable, especially when it was hot. Moreover, even the HSE-approved masks were viewed with some suspicion. One lagger recalled:

"At first they gave us wee masks. It was like a wee paper thing you put over your mouth. It’s no worth a monkey’s. A wee bandage with a wee bit of aluminium that you pressed in to your face."

Another respondent recalled that masks were not always available on site:

"If you waited for the mask coming you would never get done . . . They’d maybe give you two masks to last you a year. But eh, we accepted it . . . It was a general trend in the building trade that you just carried on with the job, you know."

Under the shared responsibility principle in the Health and Safety at Work etc (HSW) Act 1974, insulation firms had a obligation to ensure the safety of their workers and those working near them. But once again, having regulations in force and adhering to them were two different things. For example, a heating engineer could remember slip-shod procedures in his firm well into the 1980s:

"If we went down tae strip a boiler we just took it [the asbestos] off with a hammer and chisel, you know. There was nae masks or anything at that time, you know. If you came out for a breather they were asking you what you were dain sitting outside, you know. You were spitting up black for maybe a week, you know, when you came out."

He also noted that it was not until the mid-1990s that his firm began taking asbestos safety seriously, and he could recall his first lecture by a trade union safety representative on the subject:

"I finished work when? . . . a year past in May. Just about a year before that they came up and gave us a lecture on asbestos. I said you’re a wee bit late in the day . . . We’re kidding ourselves on here aren’t we?"

Moreover, the deeply-entrenched machismo of Scottish work culture – where grumbling and moaning were frowned upon and a high degree of danger at work was tolerated as a mark of masculinity – helped to perpetuate life-threatening exposure to asbestos dust. Old attitudes and customary work practices persisted in shipyards and building sites, powerfully protected by peer pressure. Note the previous statement about "accepting it" and getting on with the job; this was epitomised in the testimony of one trade union official who recalled that when he tried to warn joiners of the dangers of asbestos inhalation on the construction site of Glasgow’s Red Road flats in 1966 he was told to "fuck off" and not interfere. One of our asbestos-disease victims ruefully regretted such short-sightedness, reflecting: "Whatever it took to do that [job] I would do it. Silly now, looking back through the years you know."

Victims’ perceptions of the trade unions

Most of the interviewees testified that trade unions did little to protect workers from asbestos, or indeed from long-term health risks in general. A ship’s plumber remarked: "The nearest thing was the shop steward. And as regards safety, all that was ever mentioned was getting rises or bonus. But safety? No." Similarly, a lagger told us that in many cases the crucial decision to proceed or not to proceed with risky procedures was taken by workers themselves:

"Basically the guys on the job just had tae work it out for themselves whether we were going tae day it or no dae it. But union help? No. Very disappointed in it."

The coming into force of the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees (SRSC) Regulations 1977 allowed for the setting up of joint employer/employee safety committees. But again, victims’ testimony suggests that crucial health issues such as asbestos were not taken on board in the early days, and that safety was prioritised. A marine engineer noted:

"Certainly, as far as asbestos went, no safety officer ever approached me and told me that asbestos was a dangerous substance."

Our examination of trade union records, including the Scottish Trades Union Congress, largely confirmed that unions prioritised campaigns to raise wages and save jobs, but failed to provide an effective countervailing force on occupational health and safety issues, including asbestos before the 1980s.

The medical interface

A common denominator among interviewees was that eventually they had to present to an NHS doctor with symptoms directly related to workplace exposure to asbestos. Their testimonies shed much light on the doctor/patient relationship regarding work-induced disability. One ex-fitter, who had been exposed to asbestos 50 years before, was amazed when his doctor instantly made the connection. However, in several cases the interviewees reported that their doctors had failed to do this. For example, a retired boilermaker was wrongly diagnosed as suffering from asthma and was prescribed a Ventolin inhaler. His GP never asked about his work history and failed to see that it was relevant:

"I told the doctor time and time again that I worked in the shipyards, that I’d worked with asbestos. And I got the impression I was speaking to deaf ears."

It was only after he contacted an asbestos support group and was advised to proceed with a personal injury claim, that a computerised tomography (CT) scan – part of the claim procedure – revealed asbestos-induced lung damage. This highlights a major problem - the gap between occupational health and general health has always been too wide. As early as the late 1940s, medical professionals and the trade unions demanded that an OH service be set up as part of the NHS. This was never achieved and the situation remains that GPs in the Uk are still not given sufficient training in occupational health.

The manner in which doctors give information has a bearing on the attitude taken by the interviewees towards their medical circumstances, and here again oral testimony is the only way of probing this. While many treated the issue with the sensitivity it merited, others trivialised the issue or withheld vital information. One asbestosis sufferer was told he had nothing to worry about and that "a spell in Belsen" would do him no harm. Another recalled the diagnosis:

"‘Well’ he says ‘the X-Ray’s showing . . . Have you ever been exposed to asbestos?’ I says ‘och aye, all my life.’ ‘Och well’, he says, ‘you’ve got nothing to worry about. You’ve got a touch of asbestosis.’ I says ‘oh aye, the usual, if I get cremated it’ll take three days.’ And he laughed like hell. ‘Aye’ he says ‘it won’t bother you really’."

Victims responded in many ways to diagnoses, but commonly with stoic acceptance of their fate. Another interviewee, exposed to asbestos dust while working with asbestos sprayers in the late 1960s, recounted his experience:

"They said ‘have you ever worked with asbestos?’ You were there that day [to his wife]. She started greeting [laughs]. Didn’t you? Wee tears in her eyes. She says ‘what’s happening?’ I said ‘I’m going to die’."

Disability, social exclusion and death

What we would regard as a major contribution of the oral evidence is the insight that personal reminiscence has shed on the impact of work-related illness on people’s lives. Industrial disability invariably altered the pattern of people’s lives – both those directly affected and their partners and loved ones. The work ethic – tied up with notions of masculinity and the status of "breadwinner" – remained more pervasive than most allow for and is demonstrated in people’s oral testimony. Given this, the loss of employment combined with physical impairment was a traumatic experience involving loss of self esteem, depression, bitterness and alienation. Part of the process was a drawing back from routine social activities such as walking, gardening and dancing. An ex-boilermaker plater commented:

"I was no a bad dancer . . . But you cannae dae that now because you’re breathless. Even bowls. When I play bowls there – and they say bowls is an old man’s game and that like you know – you’re puffing and panting just walking up and down . . . Even getting out of bed in the morning you’re breathless. Even washing and that . . . Walking down and getting the papers you’re breathless."

A ship’s plumber also lamented the loss of his favourite social activity: "Now if I do one turn around the hall I’m buggered". People spoke evocatively about coping with deep psychological scars as well as the ebbing away of their physical abilities, adjusting to breathlessness, dependency and death, and the adverse economic and social ramifications of disability. "Life", one of our respondents noted, "has got to be lived in the slow lane". Our overall conclusion is that asbestos-related disease led to – and continues to lead to – what is now termed "social exclusion" and that the industrially disabled are a neglected segment of the socially-excluded constituency.


Our asbestos study – and our current study of the impact of coal miners’ dust disease – reveals that oral history methodology can be an important tool to aid our understanding of the past, and in turn points to important lessons for the future. These are summarised below. All our respondents agreed to be interviewed because they wanted policy makers to learn lessons from their experiences and suffering. They were determined to ensure that such a disaster never occurs again and that people afflicted – almost all of which are lower-income, blue collar workers are treated fairly. We should heed their words and take something positive forward from their personal tragedies. We desperately need to embrace a new vision in relation to occupational health that is markedly less conservative and limited than that adopted in the past. Attitudes need to change radically so that occupational toxins, carcinogens and hazardous workplace practices are not tolerated within our society. Certainly, there should not be any acceptable level of death or disability through work-induced injury or disease.


Research conclusions and recommendations

Several conclusions and lessons from the past can be drawn out of our study of asbestos-related disease in Scotland using participant testimony:

  • There are two critical "slippages" in the regulatory process. First, the time-lag between the growth of medical knowledge of workplace hazards and the implementation of measures to protect workers and second, an often glaring gap between the theoretically regulated workplace and actual practice. This needs to be addressed.

  • The macho work culture of shipyards and building sites acted as a drag anchor to changing attitudes at the workplace regarding occupational health strategies and continues to do so. It has recently been suggested that occupational health should be taught at schools and colleges, as well as being part of workers’ training and development. We would support this notion as our evidence indicates that only if workers are collectively aware of the health risks can they fully participate in the shared responsibility principle of the HSW Act 1974.

  • Our research points to the fact that the separation of occupational health from general health exacerbated the asbestos problem, and that in many cases quicker action could have been taken if GPs were more aware of the potential impact of the workplace on workers’ health.

  • Our study also suggests that the state must bear some responsibility for the high asbestos death toll because of the sheer inadequacy of workplace regulation, and the long insistence of the HSE to prioritise workers’ safety over workers’ health.

  • We found that, in general, trade unions prioritised wages and job preservation over occupational health. They continue to do so, albeit to a lesser extent. Trade unions should review their policies and adopt a more pro-active stance.

  • The evidence of social exclusion suggests that Department of Social Security industrial compensation procedures require review and that community-based charitable groups – such as Clydeside Action on Asbestos – should be fully supported.

  • In general, the Scottish evidence illustrates how employers and management prioritised profits and condoned unsafe, life-threatening working practices, long after the hazards of asbestos were known. More extensive management education on occupational health is necessary, combined with more effective deterrents operating on those responsible for corporate crime. Breaking through entrenched, sometimes callous, attitudes and fossilised practices to develop a more health-conscious work culture remains a major challenge that must be addressed.

Ronnie Johnston and Arthur McIvor are both lecturers in history at the University of Strathclyde and Research Associates at the European Centre for Occupational Safety, Health and the Environment in Glasgow. They are the authors of Lethal Work: A History of the Asbestos Tragedy in Scotland (Tuckwell Press, Scotland, 2000).

June 8, 2001



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