Photographer Documents Plight of Asbestos Miners

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An Australian newspaper recently released a pictorial exposé on the men that, for decades, worked in the asbestos mine of Baryulgil, owned by James Hardie Industries.

Asbestos miners

The mining of chrysotile “white” asbestos began there in 1953 and for nearly as long as the mine existed, the company maintained that working there was safe and that miners shouldn’t be concerned about their health because the chrysotile type of asbestos is non-toxic.

Nonetheless, the photographs paint a grim picture of life as an asbestos miner.

The photographer, Darcy McFadden, shot the photos in the late 1960s as a photographer for The Northern Star, which covers the news in the Northern Rivers area of Australia where the mine was located.

McFadden was a staff photographer for the paper for more than 50 years and saw a lot during his many assignments. His shots of the mine workers had him shaking his head in disbelief.

The award-winning photographer told fellow newspaper staffers, and later his readers, that people in the area were “completely ignorant” about the dangers of asbestos at the time.

“As you went in to Baryulgil, it was actually (spread) all over the roads, just like a thin dust,” McFadden said. “I remember quite plainly going into the mine and breaking a piece up, it was like breaking up a stone… a fibrous stone. It was a stringy type of thing.”

One particularly telling photo shows two dark-skinned Aboriginal men smiling at the camera while filling bags with the chrysotile asbestos and sending them on a conveyor belt up to workers awaiting their arrival above ground.

In the black and white photograph, the bodies and hair of the two asbestos miners were quite obviously covered with the dust. One was dressed in shorts with no shirt while the other wore normal street clothes. There wasn’t a stitch of protective gear anywhere in sight.

This is despite the fact that the Asbestos Disease Foundation of Australia declared the material to be dangerous as far back as the early 1940s. For decades, however, Hardie Industries told workers that only the brown and blue types of asbestos were a danger to human health.

It’s been evident for many years, however, that white asbestos can also cause mesothelioma cancer though it’s somewhat less toxic than the brown and blue varieties.

Dr. Ray Jones, confirms that fact. A former parliament member in the district that includes the Baryulgil mine, he recently told the newspaper that an estimated 90 percent of former workers at the Hardie mine have died of asbestos-related cancers.

That seems proof enough.