Asbestos in Scotland 

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



Incubating Death: Working with Asbestos in Clydeside Shipbuilding and Engineering, 1945-1990  by Ronald Johnston and Arthur McIvor describes the aftermath of a century of heavy asbestos use in an area of the United Kingdom often overlooked: Scotland. Cooperation from Clydeside Action on Asbestos, the first asbestos victims group in Scotland, and the use of an oral history methodology enabled the authors to obtain first-hand information from shipyard workers, insulators, riggers, fitters, ships’ plumbers and marine engineers. The twenty-five individuals interviewed confirm that asbestos use was unregulated and uncontrolled. According to one boilermaker: "I’m no exaggerating when I say this: it was like snow coming down, and there were nobody there to supervise them…There was asbestos all over…and it was all coming down on top of you." An insulation engineer recalled mixing asbestos paste, also known as "monkey dung," during his apprenticeship at Harland and Woolf’s shipyard. In 1970 "they’d spray that (monkey dung) on the bulkhead of a boat. And the sprayer would have a wee drum. So you’d just mix it up and stick it in the drum. Eh, you got a half pint of milk for that. It was a good bonus you know. A half pint of milk…" Decades of neglect were due to lack of knowledge, a "machismo work culture," across-the-board acceptance of workplace hazards and enfeebled trade unions. The naivety of the Factory Inspectorate and the Health and Safety Executive in expecting employers to protect shipyard and engineering workers was a major contributory factor to the longevity of toxic conditions. Inadequate industrial compensation for the illness which ensued threw "victims and their families into relative poverty and social exclusion."

Lethal Work: A History of the Asbestos Tragedy in Scotland  by Ronald Johnston and Arthur McIvor, published in 2000, is the culmination of the project first described above. Detail by graphic detail the history of Scotland’s asbestos tragedy unfolds as the authors explain how and why the country came to top the UK league table for asbestos-related disease. Although the Scottish incidence rates of asbestos-related disease are high, the rates in the West of Scotland are higher, with the rates in the Clydebank district being off the scale. Between 1986-1995, the standardized mortality rate (SMR) for mesothelioma in Clydebank was 1100 compared to the average British SMR of 100. Using statistics, documentary evidence and the telling testimony of survivors, Johnston and McIvor produce an in-depth study of the worst occupational health disaster in Scottish history. From its inception, the commercial exploitation of asbestos found a ready home in Scotland. In the 19th century, Scottish companies pioneered the manufacture of asbestos products; the Patent Asbestos Manufacturing Company was set up in Glasgow in 1871. By 1885, Glasgow boasted nineteen asbestos manufacturers and distributors; by 1900, the Glasgow Post Office Directory listed fifty-two asbestos manufacturers. Occupational asbestos exposure, common throughout Scotland, reached epic levels in the Glasgow area where a myriad of asbestos goods were manufactured: engine packing and insulation, blocks, rope, millboard, panelling, boiler mattresses, tape, powder, putty, cement, paint, drive bands, wide sheets for marine insulation, thin strips for electrical insulation, locomotive insulation mattresses, brake linings, jointings, hoses plus a range of asbestos cement products. John Brown’s, Clydebank and other shipyards employed the services of specialist insulating companies such as Bell’s Asbestos and Engineering Co., Cape Asbestos Co., Drumoyne Asbestos Covering Co., Kitson’s Insulators Ltd. and Newalls’ Insulation Co. Asbestos was commonly used on building sites, in locomotive construction and repair, at the oil refineries and in premises which specialised in motor, marine, chemical, heating and electrical engineering. Grossly unhealthy working conditions produced high levels of exposure: "occupational health standards in relation to asbestos were particularly poor in the Turner’s Asbestos Cement factory in Clydebank and also in the Clyde shipyards and building sites. Widespread exposure to asbestos in these workplaces, especially from the 1920s to 1960s, incubated a mesothelioma time bomb which is currently exploding across Scotland."

The active participation of former workers in this project has produced testimony which is as dramatic as it is precise: "I’ll never forget till the day I die the first impression of that place (Turner’s factory). It was like walking into Dante’s inferno without the fire. It was just hell. The noise was unbelievable… Dust was flying through the air everywhere, clouds of dust." Another witness said: "The worst of the whole thing was the clean-downs. You had to clean the machine once a shift. You had big steel tools like scrapers, and they were for all the world like a big broad blade 6 or 7 inches long, that was made out of steel. And eh, you scrapped off all the hardened asbestos cement fae round the sides of the machine with high pressure hoses and these scrapers… And because you were working with high pressure hoses you got an awful lot of splash-backs and you were covered in wet asbestos cement." A Clydeside insulation engineer summed up the situation as follows: "If you put a guy into a car and push him down a hill with no brakes in it and it crashes at the bottom and kills him, you’ve murdered him. Well, it’s the same with us. They made us work with poisonous materials that were killing us, and never told us." Throughout the asbestos century "society tolerated a certain level of death and disability, and for far too long employers and managers were allowed a virtual free hand by a cautious state unwilling or unable to implement the tough measures needed to protect citizens effectively, both in the workplace and in the community." Scientists predict that by the year 2025, twenty thousand Scots will have died from asbestos diseases.

February 1, 2001



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