Asbestos was commonly used in building and insulation until the early 1970s. Exposure to asbestos fibres is now known to cause lung cancers such as mesothelioma. The most insidious aspect of this condition is that it usually occurs 15 or 20 years after exposure to asbestos. Asbestos-linked diseases are common amongst workers at asbestos mines.
The James Hardie Group operated an asbestos mine at Baryulgil Square on the far north coast of New South Wales from 1944 to 1976. Aside from a few white managers, Aboriginal Australians comprised the Baryulgil workforce.
There were reports that the Baryugil mine had often been suffused in a cloud of asbestos dust from the mining and crushing operations.
Workers said that often they could not see from one side of the mining site to the other and during the bagging of the crushed asbestos the thick clouds of dust made it impossible for the person shovelling to see the person holding the bag. The mine tailings were also piled near the Square and dust blew over the mine workers’ houses. Roads in and around the Square were commonly sealed with the asbestos tailings. There were stories of children rolling in the dust as the tailings were being dumped from the trucks.
After media stories on asbestos-related illnesses at Baryugil, the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs in the Federal House of Representatives conducted an inquiry. The Aboriginal Legal Service requested that PIAC assist by preparing a detailed submission. PIAC engaged an Aboriginal law student, Murray Chapman, and Larry Strange, an expert in occupational health issues. The submission formed a major part of the evidence before the Parliamentary Committee and was relied upon in its Report.
The Committee’s report was tabled in Parliament in October 1984. Disappointingly, the Committee refused to recommend compensation for the mine workers, although it recognised that there were legal difficulties in them bringing common law claims.
However, the Committee did strongly condemn the failure of the company to protect its workers. It found that while the dangers of asbestos were not known to the general public and many doctors until the early 1960s, James Hardie, as a major international asbestos company, was in a position to know of major overseas studies and reports at a much earlier point.
The Committee also found that the company made greater efforts to reduce the risk of exposure to asbestos in its factories and other operations than at the mine, although mining operations were by their nature potentially far more dangerous. The Committee also heavily criticised the state health and mining officials for failure to adequately guard the welfare of the mine workers. The inspectors apparently gave forewarning of visits to the mine manager, who then cleared up the site.
Recommendations were made for changes in the compensation laws to accommodate the special situation of Aboriginal workers. For example, most marriages of mine workers were according to traditional Aboriginal law and therefore considered to be de facto marriages in white law, which meant the spouses of deceased workers were excluded from seeking compensation. Some of these changes have since occurred as a result of general reforms in the law affecting de facto relationships, both in the white and black communities.
Baryulgil workers were not able to secure compensation through common law actions. The main problem proved to be the requirement that actions be brought within six years of injury. There is provision in NSW for an extension of one year where a previously unknown material fact comes to light. However, this provision is confused and complex and fails to adequately deal with the problems posed by latent injuries.