September 25, 2007

I'll be sixty-six years old in May, and I swear I'm just about the onliest one I know that's left alive .. I finally had to quit the Tyler plant in 1968. They disabled me. Just couldn't hardly breathe no more. Now I'm out of breath all the time. Can't do nothing. Can't walk any distance at all. When I quit, they started giving me some retirement payments-eighteen dollars a month.(1)

Over the years, the decisions and priorities of asbestos manufacturers have resulted in a tragic record of death and disability for workers. Workers have been denied any knowledge of the effects of asbestos, only to be discarded as roken-down machines when the physical consequences became evident. Because of the long latency periods before the onset of symptoms, and the primacy of profits, the industry was not prompted to admit, much less eliminate, the hazards of

Studies finally revealed the horrible reality that 50% of the workforce was dying from their jobs. This has forced industry to acknowledge the health hazards of asbestos and induced the imposition of regulations, but how much has really changed? It is the purpose of this article to raise questions about the extent of the changes, to discuss the actions workers have taken, and to evaluate their limitations and alternatives in the fight to guarantee safe and healthy working conditions.

Overall, there is no question that conditions in asbestos factories are better than they were a decade ago. Increasingly presented as examples of this trend are the large plants of
Johns-Manville, which have reduced dust levels and abridged the gross disregard for the toxicity of asbestos. Other plants as well have installed cleaner production facilities. Thus,
even though past exposure to asbestos will continue to cause large numbers of workers' deaths, and dangers still persist, at least the most flagrant contamination has been contained and fewer workers will die in the future from asbestosis.


Even this qualified improvement does not affect all workers who handle asbestos. Because a standard is on the books does not necessarily imply that it is a reality in every shop. As we have pointed out, OSHA keeps no statistics on the extent of compliance, so no one can quote facts and figures. Most of the
debate has focused on the feasibility of lowering the standards and not on whether the old one has been implemented.

Also, the accuracy of OSHA inspections is in doubt. Many workers attest to the fact that they always know when OSHA inspectors are coming because, prior to the "unannounced"
visits, elaborate clean-ups are undertaken. One worker told NACLA that in 1974, several years after standards were supposed to have been in effect, he was hired at Kentile, a large producer of asbestos vinyl tile, and was told nothing about the dangers of asbestos.(2) The dust was so intense in parts of the factory that he couldn't see someone walking only 20 feet away. Although OSHA inspectors did visit the plant, the results of the inspection were never posted. Limited changes were made over the next two years, but nothing was done to radically change the situation. Shortly before the new standard was to go into effect in 1976, OSHA inspected the plant again and recorded exceptionally low dust levels, which
simply did not jive with the reality workers

Industry still publicly argues that "we're all in this together." Yet the industry continues to throw the onus of protection onto the individual worker.


On the one hand, it cultivates the notion of individualized solutions. For example, although OSHA mandates engineering controls as the method for cleaning up the work-place, it does allow the usage of personal protective equipment until such changes are instituted, or in situations where changes are considered impractical. In practice, this has often translated into relying on respirators to do the job of compliance. From the workers' point of view, especially if dust exposure is heavy and prolonged, this "solution" is problematic. Certain types of masks tend to fall off when the face is sweaty, so that half the time, the mask hangs around the neck. When it is put back into place, the surface that directly covers the
mouth is covered with fibers. Some masks cause facial blisters, or don't fit over glasses, and some workers with either sinus problems or decreased lung capacity find the respirator to be a hazard in itself. It is therefore understandable that workers often resist using this
sort of "protection."


On the other hand, industry maintains their old strategy of putting the blame for the hazards on the worker. At Kentile, for example, management's first move to "improve" conditions was to hire a safety engineer whose job was to walk around the
plant and write up workers for any safety and health violations. Next, a series of safety meetings was instituted from which the following is a perfect example of the "blame the victim" strategy:

Just as ABC is the beginning of the alphabet, so we must start to practice safety at the beginning of each day. Unsafe actions by people are the cause of 90% of all injuries. Therefore it is a person's state of mind or attitude
that determines his or her safety. Any one of the following traits can involve you or a fellow worker in an accident. Are you a joker, careless, disobedient, hot-headed, lazy, show off, inexperienced at a job, forgetful or tired? Beware-and change your ways if you intend to stay healthy!!!! (emphasis added)(5)

Industry's constant emphasis has been on finding scapegoats for asbestos-related disease. In the past, industry tried to blame tuberculosis and unsanitary living conditions for the high incidence of respiratory disease that is now recognized as having been asbestosis. In the same way, industry is currently seeking various ways of diverting attention from the carcinogenic properties of asbestos. The fact that cigarette smoking dramatically heightens the risk of lung cancer in asbestos workers has been seized by industry-long after the correlation was proven-to absolve itself of responsibility. Recently, Johns-Manville announced a policy of hiring only non-smokers and attempting to force its current workforce to quit the habit. Undoubtedly it would be better for their health if all asbestos workers stopped smoking, but J-M's policy diverts attention from the two major points:
1)that in addition to lung cancer, asbestos has been proven to produce a type of cancer that is unrelated to cigarettes and 2) J-M's responsibility is not to regulate the personal habits of its workers but to provide a safe workplace.


The situation is particularly dismal for the unorganized worker. Without the backing of a union, OSHA can provide virtually no assistance either.

A worker in a non-union shop is not going to risk being fired by filing a complaint without the protection of a union. A lot of companies, to avoid union organizing campaigns, will pay
union rates, but when it comes to issues of safety and health, getting representation in Washington at OSHA, prying information from management about the chemicals on the jobs, or getting conditions corrected, if there's not a union on the job that workers can use, bad conditions just go on and on.(6)

It is quite clear, therefore, that the structure unions can provide is necessary to fight against these odds. For example, the health records of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers (HFIA) were instrumental in allowing Selikoff to build the medical case against asbestos without recourse to company records. The withholding of such information by industry has been a major impediment to worker activism around occupational health. This work was one of the forces behind the creation of OSHA and the establishment of asbestos standards.


But the support asbestos workers have received from the unions on the question of occupational safety and health has been far
from complete. In part this is because the unions have been overwhelmed with the obstacles. The diversity of the industry and the dispersion of asbestos use present a number of
difficulties. One consequence is that workers are also dispersed from one another, and different sectors are exposed to varying dust problems. Also, many different unions are
involved, even in the primary industries. In Johns-Manville, alone, there are 26 unions.(7)This is a serious disadvantage as it makes industry-wide bargaining around occupational safety and health nearly impossible. Compounding the issue is the vast, cross-industrial use of asbestos. Many other workers are thereby affected who may be in still other unions or who may have no union at all.

Additionally, struggle around occupational safety and health often lays bare the struggle for greater control over the work process. This is a right which management wants to keep for itself and one which many unions have been reluctant to take on. Rather than challenge management's hegemony, higher wages
for dangerous jobs-"hazard pay"-are often negotiated.

Workers are also quite vulnerable to the options the industry has at its disposal. The trends within the industry of increased automation, substitution of other materials, and
increased production abroad have all combined to mean that workers are afraid that strict enforcement of regulations would mean that they are out of work.

Since these trends are only beginning to unfold, it is hard to assess how insecure asbestos workers' jobs really are. Using the figures from the primary industry as a rough guide, the number of production workers stayed very stable from the late 1950's until the early 1970's. Then, between 1973 and 1976, during which the regulations were in effect, employment dropped by 24%. However, in this same period, production fell by 14.5%(8) and is no doubt partially related to the overall economic recession. Therefore, regulation may have less
to do with it than it may first appear, but the lack of job security is no less threatening. As one worker put it, "I'm 52. I been workin' at J-M 27 years. Who would hire me? Where else could I go?"" Often the effect of this fear of job loss puts workers in the position of being hostile to instituting changes that would protect their lives. We have tried to demonstrate that whether or not the regulations are enforced,
these trends in the industry will continue. By not fighting for enforcement, workers only have their lives to lose.


Traditionally workers have been lucky to receive any type of compensation for the disabilities suffered from asbestos disease. Industry has preferred to fight out compensation on a case by case basis, in order to both minimize the claims and keep the extent of the problem quiet. But increasingly they are fighting back. In many parts of the country, in several different industries, workers are taking the manufacturers to court.

The best known example of this is a $100 million class action suit by former workers or their survivors of the Pittsburgh-Corning insulation plant in Tyler, Texas, which closed in 1972. They argued that the employers should have known for at least thirty years about the hazards of asbestos and failed both to inform the workers and take precautions to
minimize the dangers. They sued the government as well for its complicity. In December 1977, the case was settled out of court for $20 million, of which the government paid $5.7
million.(10) Though creating no legal precedent, it has broad implications for industry, government and unions nonetheless.

The industry is quite concerned about having to pay for the damage it imposes. Recently, Johns-Manville lawyers drafted
legislation backed by Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R), from J-M's home state of New Jersey. The bill would outlaw this type of suit in return for a fixed compensation rate, to be substantially financed by government funds. In other words, the industry would be off the hook and taxpayers would underwrite industry's long abuse of asbestos workers' health. Although at the moment passage is doubtful, it is a clear reflection of the impact that one group of workers has had.

The HFIA has also backed the measure, arguing that while suits are a way to gain compensation for disabled workers, the high
costs of litigation and the time delay preclude many workers from going this route.(11) While this may be true, a part of their concern may likely stem from the fact that the bill also prohibits workers from suing their unions.

The Tyler case serves to illustrate this point well. Pittsburgh-Corning countersued the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW), the union involved, for negligence.(12) The union maintains that it was kept in the dark along with the workers about the dangers of asbestos. Said Steve Wodka (a health and safety official in the union): "We were sued by Pittsburgh-Corning in order to scare us off the issue of occupational safety and health and also to undermine the moral support we were giving our former members
who brought the suit." In order to avoid a court case that could bankrupt the union, OCAW agreed to pay $150,000 as part of the overall settlement. "However," Wodka continued, "I hope the outcome of the suit is more aggressive union action in the future when we discover a health hazard."(13) Rank and
file workers who, when surveyed, listed occupational safety and health to be the most important work-place issue, are pressuring unions to do just that.

It is in this way that the real impact of the Tyler case should be felt. Compensation for loss of life and limb is a lousy reward. But while the furor over compensation is one force that helps lead to future prevention, workers have to be involved in fighting for prevention of the hazards in the first place. For workers handling asbestos some steps in this direction are being made.

In fact it is quite ironic that OCAW was involved in the Tyler case, as it has one of the best records of any union in dealing with occupational safety and health concerns. Its
activity is partly because its membership comes into contact with virtually every known chemical hazard. Although the majority of OCAW's membership is not located in the primary asbestos industry, almost all come in contact with asbestos on the job. In response, the OCAW has launched an educational campaign about the dangers, which include commissioning an excellent slide show, an informational poster to hang up in the shops and a booklet detailing the positive precautions
workers should insist on when dealing with asbestos. Essentially their position is that not much will change without worker knowledge and involvement at the shop level.

Other workers have been able to eliminate asbestos altogether when it is not essential to the production process. Locals of both the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) and the International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (IUE) have recently been able to force manufacturers, who use asbestos in wire insulation, to switch to less dangerous materials.(15) Clearly this option is not available to those in the primary industry. However, another aspect of UE policy has universal application. Like many unions, they urge the creation of health and safety committees but additionally stress that:

The UE opposes joint union-management safety committees, in which representatives of the employers and the workers are supposed to "work together," because it diverts attention
from the fact that it is management which is responsible for providing a safe and healthful workplace.(16)

Their position is that the fight is a part of the general struggle against the employer; that just as the workers must fight about the wage rate, so too must workers fight the employer to protect their health and safety.


Several unions have fought for greater protection in the form of contract language. Contract demands include the right to know what chemicals, toxins, solvents, procedures, etc., are used and the details of their corresponding dangers; the right to refuse dangerous work with no loss of pay or the right to strike if the hazards aren't quickly corrected through the grievance procedure; the right to employer recognition of the safety committee; the right to maintain the same wage rate if switched to a different job because of an occupational health problem and the right to tie job security to clean-up demands. Winning these demands in a contract does not guarantee implementation, but it does expand upon the legal protection of OSHA.

The United Auto Workers (UAW) is in a stronger position to rely on contract clauses than many others with members who handle asbestos. Their comparative strength is due in large part to the relatively strong bargaining position in their primary industry of automobile production, which is 90% organized. Some asbestos workers have won limited contract
provisions including medical examinations at industry expense with access to the records, lockers (although two sets are really needed, one for work clothes and one for street clothes
so that they don't bring the deadly fibers home), and other protective equipment.

However, even when workers win these safety demands, larger problems tend to counterbalance them. An interesting example
is provided by a worker in an auto repair shop who in the course of his work comes into contact with a variety of toxic substances. The UAW has won contract language which provides for vacuum cleaners and respirators to protect workers against asbestos exposure when changing brake linings, but the problems workers encounter go beyond technical solutions. When NACLA asked what was the worst occupational hazard in the shop, one worker promptly replied, "the piece rate."(17) He explained that the piece rate system pressures each worker to work at the highest level of productivity. The extra minutes involved in putting on the mask or using a vacuum cleaner conflict with the drive to maximize speed. The need to maintain a rate, be it a piece rate, the speed of an assembly line or just the unspoken minimum acceptable to a supervisor, penalizes those who take the time to do a job safely.

All tolled, in the struggle around asbestos there has been an unbalanced emphasis on standards. As important as they are, they do not address having control over what is produced and how it is done. The fight must be linked to protection of job security, retraining for different jobs if need be, and most importantly demystification of the argument that the interests of manufacturers are the same as those of workers. At base, the best guarantee to workers' health is a mobilized rank and file.



1. Paul Brodeur, op.cit., p. 86.

2. NACLA interview with former asbestos vinyl tile worker at Kentile Floors, Inc., Brooklyn, NY (September,1977).

3. NACLA correspondence from Brooklyn OSHA office, U.S. Department of Labor (March 20,1978).

5. Safety Talk No. 51, delivered by management at Kentile Floors, Inc., Brooklyn, NY (April 5, 1976).

6. Dorothy McGhee, "Workplace Hazards," The Progressive (October, 1977), p.25.

7. Health/PAC Bulletin, No. 50 (March, 1973), p.7.

8. U.S. Bureau of the Census, Annual Survey of Manufacturers, 1973-1976, op.cit.

9. Marsha Love Handelman and David Kotelchuck, "Your Job or Your Life," Liberation (July-August, 1973), p.52.

10. New York Times, December 20, 1977.

11. NACLA interviews with Roy Steinforth, health and safety expert, HFIA, (February, 1978).

12. New York Times, December 20, 1977.

13. NACLA interview with Steve Wodka, Legislative Assistant, OCAW (December, 1977).

15. UE News, February 6, 1978. p.9: and NACLA interview with a member of Local 111, International Union of Electrical Workers (March, 1978).

16. "UE Model Safety and Health Contract Provisions," mimeo from UE annual convention (September 12,1977).

17. NACLA interview with shop steward, UAW Local 259, working in an auto repair shop (February, 1978).

Tags: Asbestos, OSHA, labor unions, workers complaints

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