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This Day in Labor History: October 20, 1969

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On October 20, 1969, a construction worker named Clarence Borel filed suit against eleven companies for asbestos exposure. This key moment in the movement against asbestos is a way to get at the exposure workers faced on the job, the cover up conducted by companies for decades, and how workers finally began to win compensation.

By the late nineteenth century, asbestos had become common in American construction. Johns Manville was founded in 1858 and it soon became the largest asbestos producer in the country. In fact, the company’s founder, H.W. Johns, died in 1898 because of asbestos exposure. But he didn’t know that would happen at the time. The company pioneered asbestos-based roofing and insulation, as well as asbestos-based cement.

It’s not as if asbestos’ dangers were unknown. Even ancient Romans realized that asbestos caused illness. Pliny himself wrote that slaves working with asbestos seemed to die and that they made proto-masks out of bladders to protect themselves. But this was largely ignored as the modern asbestos industry was created. In 1897, a doctor in Vienna wrote the first modern piece on the health problems asbestos workers faced. This became more known as the decades went on. But workplaces remained very unsafe for a long time. Even with the arrival of successful unions in the mid-twentieth century, lots of workplaces remained quite unsafe. Unions might fight for the most obvious workplace safety issues to be taken care of, but in terms of pollutants and the like, it wasn’t a major priority. Meanwhile, workers died left and right of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses.

This began to change in the early 1960s, at least for asbestos workers. When a group of physicians asked a company to share its medical records after discovering a cluster of asbestos-related illnesses among the workforce, the company refused. So the doctors contacted the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers for help, The union gladly assisted the doctors. Mostly, unions weren’t opposed to better workplace safety, but they didn’t really understand the issues either. Union help allowed the doctors to publish a landmark study in 1965 that strongly affirmed the relationship between asbestos exposure and construction work. The union had kept records for death benefits and this allowed a longer-term study, even though most of the workers were dead.

Because of the racial segregation of construction labor during the era of peak asbestos use, the demographics of asbestos deaths are astounding. Between 1990 and 1999, nearly 11,000 American died from asbestos-related causes, many of them with exposure that happened decades earlier. An incredible 96 percent of them were men and 93 percent of them were white. 98 percent were over the age of 55 upon death. By 1998, it surpassed black lung as the biggest workplace death cause for lung-related reasons.

Now, workers had tried to get compensation for their asbestos-related illnesses for a long time. In 1927, a foreman in an asbestos company became the first known person to file a suit for damages. He won his disability claim in Massachusetts. Lawsuits against Johns Manville began in 1929. In 1933, the company approved of settlements to end claims by eleven workers in New Jersey. Finally, facing continued lawsuits, in 1949 the company decided to simply not inform workers of the health risks or that they were contracting illnesses. Gotcha, good call there.

In 1969, Clarence Borel, a construction worker who had worked since 1936, discovered he had contracted asbestosis. This became a key case in the larger fight against asbestos. This was happening at the same time that the rise of the modern workplace safety movement led to the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1971 and many unions were beginning to take this more seriously. So there was a lot of interest in Borel’s case. He testified about the dust:

You just move them just a little and there is going to be dust, and I blowed this dust out of my nostrils by handfuls at the end of the day, trying to use water too, I even used Mentholatum in my nostrils to keep some of the dust from going down in my throat, but it is impossible to get rid of all of it. Even your clothes just stay dusty continually unless you blow it off with an air hose.

Borel freely admitted that he figured what he worked with was dangerous, but then that described so many jobs in the mid-twentieth century. Toward the last years, there was sometimes access to a respirator. But they were hot and uncomfortable and, as many workers would point out throughout this period, the onus was entirely on them to stay safe and not the companies to keep this crap out of the air. On the other hands, sometimes union safety attempts could also cause workers to complain. The creation of cultures of work often included risk and comfort as key elements.

Borel’s filed suit against eleven companies and the jury found ten guilty of negligence and it also proclaimed Borel himself at least partly responsible. The companies appealed, claiming they had nothing to do with it and besides, who knows how he got it. But Borel countered that none of the companies ever took safety seriously, told workers of the risks, did testing to determine safe exposure levels, or anything really. The companies began settling with him at this point to cut their losses. But others did not. The case went on for awhile, through appeals.

Then in 1974, the so-called Asbestos Papers were discovered on an inspection of an asbestos factory in Connecticut. These definitively showed that the companies knew very well what asbestos did to workers’ lungs and had conspired for decades to cover it up. This created an entirely new situation in the courts. Workers such as Borel began to routinely win their court cases. Johns Manville itself filed for bankruptcy in 1982 to protect itself from lawsuits that reached $2 billion in total. The companies pooled together funds to pay off these claims, but the industry was utterly overwhelmed and claims continue to file in today, as anyone who has seen the many television ads for people exposed to asbestos to join class action suits knows. These can be hard to prove and the courts are not that sympathetic in many cases today, a result of the rise of the right-wing courts. But overall, exposure to asbestos at the workplace has declined precipitously in recent decades, even as the overall toll of decades of exposure continues to plague the working classes.

This post was based on Dorceta Taylor’s The Environment and the People in American Cities, 1600s-1900s.

This is the 457th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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