Asbestos has been used for thousands of years. Although it is sometimes assumed that the health hazards of asbestos have only been known for the past century, this is not the case. The dangers of asbestos exposure came to light as far back as the year 100 AD, when Roman Naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote about the gruesome consequences he witnessed among slaves at asbestos jobsites. In his work Natural History, Pliny the Elder noted the quick, painful deaths brought on by respiratory diseases among the slaves who had worked with asbestos.
By the 1930s there was a definitive link between asbestos exposure and serious respiratory illnesses. At this time, doctors began warning factory managers, mine owners and asbestos manufacturers of the health risks associated with asbestos. Despite these warnings, executives failed to act. They continued to expose their workers to the toxic mineral without protective gear.
As more and more employees became ill after asbestos exposure, asbestos manufacturing executives failed to acknowledge the issue and instead chose to cover up the problem. They destroyed doctor’s notes, health reports, and safety memos detailing the dangers of asbestos. Rather than choosing to acknowledge the health risks and provide necessary protective gear, executives offered compensation to employees with health problems linked to asbestos exposure at the workplace. They did this quietly, forcing employees to not disclose the cause of the illness to others.
An example of this involved the company Johns-Manville. In 1934, officials of the company edited an article written by a Metropolitan Life Insurance Company physician on the asbestos-related diseases suffered by Johns-Manville employees. Similar types of cover-ups continued for years. In 1952, Kenneth Smith, Johns-Manville medical director, recommended warning labels be put on asbestos products. His recommendation was turned down based on “financial implications of lost sales”.
Additionally, a former Chairman of the Paterson Industrial Commission named Charles Roemer met with President of Johns-Manville Vandiver Brown to discuss the asbestos issue and recent changes in the X-rays of the lungs of employees. Brown told Roemer that it was Johns-Manville’s policy to do nothing about the asbestos issue and to not tell employees about the X-ray findings.
Over time, labor and trade unions began working for safer working environments for employees in these industries. It was during this time that secret documents revealing massive asbestos cover-ups were exposed, putting major corporations and executives in the spotlight. These secret documents were known as the Sumner Simpson papers, and they provided indisputable evidence that the asbestos industry knew about the health dangers of asbestos exposure without necessary protective gear.
As a result of a working American justice system, the dangers of asbestos exposure were brought to light and subsequent safety regulations were implemented at the federal and state level to ensure a safer working environment for all. Although asbestos is not banned in the United States, progress has been made to raise awareness of the health hazards of asbestos exposure without necessary protective gear.
Learn more about asbestos in the workplace.