People are sometimes appalled to discover that they were exposed to asbestos during their working life. But equally often, they will say, ‘We worked with asbestos all the time. No one knew any better in those days. We thought it was a safe material to use.’
Their manager, or the owner of the firm, may have been a friend and colleague as well as their employer. They naturally assume that the boss was ignorant of the dangers too.
In a small firm, and among junior managers in a large firm, this is probably true. But American research has revealed how much the directors of big firms knew about asbestos.
When did people find out that asbestos was dangerous?
Asbestos was cheap and convenient to use. It is also highly resistant to heat. For these reasons its use continued to be widespread even though, by the early part of the last century, scientists knew it could be dangerous to human health. The manufacturers of asbestos products continued saying that it was safe until the medical evidence became overwhelming.
Other companies which were large enough to employ their own medical staff soon began to receive reports that asbestos was harming their workforce. But they often continued using it. One big corporation warned its doctors not to tell employees they had asbestosis until they were unable to work anymore. The firm wanted to ‘benefit from [their] many years of experience’.
A director of another firm wrote that, if people had ‘enjoyed a good life’ they shouldn’t be concerned about dying from an asbestos related disease. His attitude was that we all have to die of something.
An internal memo – circulated to senior managers in a big firm in 1958 – said that getting ill from inhaling asbestos was as certain as ‘death and taxes’.
What about UK firms?
These examples all come from US firms, but the same medical evidence was available to large firms in the UK.