History Has Lessons for Twenty-first Century Workers in Dusty Environments

By Cecily Hunter and A.D LaMontagne,
University of Melbourne

February, 2012


Exposure to dust hazards, first recognised as a health risk centuries ago, continues to be an occupational health problem today.  A 2005 Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee inquiry into occupational dust hazards found that workers are at risk from new kinds of dust as well as those that are well known to cause lung disease.  Indeed the inquiry was sparked by the widespread occurrence of silicosis, recognised in the 1920s in Australia as a hazard to workers' health, and the failure of occupational health and safety and workers' compensation agencies to recognize and compensate victims.

A more tragic reminder of the need for Australian workers to be vigilant about exposure to workplace dust is Australia's asbestos disease epidemic, most dramatically demonstrated in the steeply rising incidence of mesothelioma  which is not expected to peak until about 2017.  Mortality from asbestosis also continues to rise and now accounts for the largest proportion of work-related dust diseases.  A 2001 estimate of the future burden of asbestos-related disease projected 10,000 more mesotheliomas and 20,000 more lung cancers.  Asbestos-related lung cancer is indirectly estimated as two times the mesothelioma burden and more recent 2007 future mesothelioma estimates have been revised upwards to 21,7000.  Thus, 2001 estimates could be revised upwards to 40,000-plus future asbestos-related lung cancers.

This article aims to support workers in their vigilance against exposure to workplace dust by drawing on the history of occupational dust diseases in Australia, in particular, the history of workers' exposure to asbestos and other dusts within the former Victorian State Electricity Commission (SEC).  The banning of asbestos in 2003 was the culmination of a three-decades long process that got underway in the 1970s through the efforts of workers and their families, health professionals, and researchers.  Historians and journalists have written about the exposure of Australian workers to asbestos dust.  This work shows in various ways that the conditions in which exposure occurred were often complex, that exposure cannot always be explained in terms of greed on the part of employers, poorly organised workers, the absence of knowledge about the effects of exposure to asbestos dust, or the lack of technical expertise.  

As this article will show, the exposure of SEC employees to asbestos and other dusts could be accounted for in terms of the priority given to maintaining productive processes over workers' health, in an enterprise vital to the state's economy.  However, a closer examination of the situation in the period covered here – mid 1940s to mid-1950s – shows that at this time there were possibilities within the SEC for ensuring that greater attention was paid to the health of workers in decisions about production.  These possibilities were associated with a range of changes to the organisational structure of the SEC, aimed at equipping it to meet the challenges of rapid economic and social change after World War II.  These changes included the introduction of a medical role into the organisation and the consolidation of organisational control in the Melbourne based Head Office.  They signalled the beginning of a shift in the culture of an organisation dominated by army traditions and engineering expertise.  The failure of SEC engineers to introduce dust management practices into the power station environment at this time was as much a consequence of their resistance to these broader changes as it was a response to the necessity to maintain the productive process.

Dr Douglas Shiels and the State Electricity Commission of Victoria

The State Electricity Commission was established in 1918 to generate, distribute and sell electricity throughout the state, using the extensive brown coal deposits found in the Latrobe Valley.  In 1921 General Sir John Monash was appointed Chairman.  Army traditions were a powerful force in the structure and the ethos of the Commission.  They were evident in the emphasis on engineering expertise, in the hierarchy of 'staff' and 'wages employees', that effectively segregated the townships that grew up around the Yallourn power station, and in the Commission's paternalism towards its workers.

This paternalism meant that SEC workers in the Latrobe Valley enjoyed a range of benefits not widely available in other fields of employment.  However it also produced a somewhat childlike trust on the part of workers in the judgment of senior officers.  Lyle Seear went to work at Yallourn in 1945.  He tells how, during occupational health and safety talks, Commission officers accompanied their statements that asbestos was not dangerous with the reminder that the Commission had always looked after its workers' interests.  In many respects this was true so workers had some justification for trusting the views of senior officers on asbestos.  

At the same time, however, power station workers did not always see eye to eye with station managers and this highly unionised workforce was ready to take independent action when it saw fit to do so.  In late 1943 the Federated Engine Drivers and Fireman's Association (FEDFA) wrote to the Department of Labour and National Service requesting an inspection of boiler cleaners' working conditions.  It is not clear from the records why the union took this step.  Possibly, as George Wragg tells us happened in the 1960s (in his book The Asbestos Time Bomb), unionists had asked SEC officers to address particular problems but their tardiness in doing so led workers to seek outside assistance.  The result was that in February 1944, Dr Douglas Shiels, Director of the Industrial Hygiene Division (IHD) of the Department of Health, made the long journey from Melbourne to Yallourn to carry out an inspection of boiler cleaners' working conditions.

At this time Shiels was working hard to ensure that Victorian employers and workers were aware of the dangers of dust in industrial environments and to encourage the development of expertise in dust management.  Australian doctors had been at the forefront of research into dust diseases in miners in the 1920s and 1930s and dust management expertise was well established in the mining industry.  Shiels wanted to introduce similar expertise into Victoria's rapidly industrialising post-war economy in the form of regular testing of atmospheric dust levels combined with the regular medical examination of workers in dusty trades.  

The outcome of Shiels' visit to Yallourn was that he found that boiler cleaners were at risk of lung disease due to excessive levels of dust.  His initial report is missing from the records but silica and coal dusts were mentioned.  It is likely that asbestos dust was also included.  In 1944 Shiels introduced an amendment to the Harmful Gases, Vapours, Fumes, Mists, Smokes and Dusts Regulations to include asbestos.  It then became obligatory for employers to ensure that any asbestos dust in their workplaces did not exceed a specified level.

The recommendations Shiels made in his report to the Yallourn Superintendent included the provision of protective devices for workers and medical examinations, and a survey of sickness absence reports and hospital records to determine the extent of respiratory problems among SEC workers.  The Superintendent's response to these recommendations is clear from his report to Head Office.  He wrote that workers preferred to use mutton cloth to protect themselves from dust rather than the devices Shiels recommended.  No reference was made to efforts to encourage workers to take a different approach.  He also stated that it was up to individual workers to arrange their own medical examination.  If the union wanted to support the type of medical investigation Shiels had recommended, the SEC would not oppose it.  There was no indication however that the SEC would pay any attention to the outcome of such investigations.  Nor is there any indication that the doctors at the Yallourn Hospital were consulted on this matter by the General Superintendent although as salaried medical officers in the health service based at the Yallourn Hospital they were ideally positioned to undertake such investigation.

There is no record of the FEDFA's response to Shiels' report which he would have sent to union officials because they had requested the investigation.  What does emerge from the SEC records is that the senior engineers at Yallourn did not take Shiels' expertise seriously.  Overall, they believed that they were the best judges of working conditions and health matters were the concern of individual workers and their personal doctor.  The General Superintendent at Yallourn concluded his report to head office in Melbourne with the comment:

The unpleasant nature of the work [cleaning boilers] is well known to all and the Chief Engineer, through his officers, particularly the Power Station Supervisor, can be depended upon to take the action necessary to ameliorate the conditions.

Dr Shiels had no authority in relation to SEC workplaces similar to his authority in regard to workplace hazards in private businesses.  As a statutory authority the Commission was able to argue that it was not legally bound by the regulations applicable to private businesses and that it was exempt from the inspections and interventions that were obligatory for these enterprises.  George Wragg wrote in The Asbestos Time Bomb that it was the practice in statutory authorities like the SEC for the maximum standards set by government regulations to be set as minimum standards.  The Mines Department, for example, did not carry out inspections of SEC boilers and pressure vessels.  The Commission set its own standards which were higher than those set by the Mines Department, and it maintained its own Pressure Vessels Inspectorate to enforce these standards.  The important point is, however, that this highly commendable approach on the part of SEC managers was dependent on them recognising that standards were required in a particular situation.  This was the principal obstacle Dr Shiels faced; getting SEC engineers to acknowledge that in the power station environment dust was a hazard to the health of workers and that a specific kind of expertise in dust management was required, in addition to medical expertise in assessing worker's health as they continued to work in dusty conditions.

Shiels came into conflict with other areas of the State Electricity Commission at this time.  Shortly after he went to Yallourn in 1944, the FEDFA at the Newport power station also called for an investigation into dusty working conditions which was passed along to Shiels just as the earlier request had been.  The Superintendent at Newport responded in an even more offhand manner than his colleague at Yallourn.  He inspected the items listed himself and came to conclusion that they did not warrant the services of Dr Shiels or any other investigating authority.  In his view the dust referred to in the complaint was only a temporary matter and that overall, conditions at Newport were 'normal', that is ordinary conditions of work in power stations.  

A further rebuff was delivered to Shiels when his inspectors were refused entry to the Commission's tunnelling works on the Kiewa Hydroelectric Scheme.  A local doctor had objected to workers being employed when their X-rays showed signs of silicosis, and the works safety committee had also raised concerns about dust.  However, the engineer in charge of the Kiewa project, as had his colleague at Newport, believed he was the best judge of the dust hazard.  His representative reported to Head Office that there was no evidence at all of dusting in the tunnels where the air was 'so pure and there is so much water about'.  No reference was made to how this assessment of dust in the tunnels was arrived at, it appears that it was based upon the construction engineer's own judgement of the situation.

Support for Dr Shiels inside the SEC

When the war ended in 1945 the SEC embarked upon a rapid enlargement of its activities to meet the demand for electricity from expanding industrial production and a fast growing population enjoying high levels of employment and rising standards of living.  Dust management became a more pressing issue because of the greatly increased use of asbestos which remained the principal material used for insulation in power stations.  The friability of asbestos, combined with its use in the form of loose powder which had to be mixed and applied meant that well into the 1950s, workers were exposed to dust during the construction of new power stations as well as in the original Yallourn station.  Men who worked at Yallourn in the 1950s and 1960s recall that there was so much dust in the air that 'you could walk into A station and you couldn't see the end of the boilers'.  

Exposure to asbestos dust was not confined to the laggers who worked with the material.  High pressure steam leaks on asbestos-lagged boiler steam piping released fibres into the atmosphere.  Delayed maintenance, often because of the capital raising constraints placed on the SEC in the 1950s, meant that plant often operated for long periods with leaks from flanged joints and valve spindles.  Maintenance was frequently undertaken under pressure to get equipment back into operation without delay.  This led to a situation where lagging was often being applied as maintenance workers were completing the job.  

In these circumstances both laggers and maintenance workers were exposed to significant quantities of dust.  Such a situation illustrates an important element in the culture of the SEC.  That is the common purpose shared by SEC managers and workers in the public service of generating electricity which often led both groups to continue working under detrimental conditions.  A unionist described the situation in 1925 as follows:

'Other unions can cease work at a moment's notice but as far as the majority of our members are concerned, where we are working under a continuous process and so many dependent upon us, we must carry on ...'.

Forty years later a power station worker put it in these words:

 '... you would work there 24 hours if it had to be to get a machine [turbine] back [in operation]'.

The changes that were made in the Commission's organisational structure after the war included the introduction of a central personnel department.  This department included a new safety branch headed by a longstanding SEC officer, Mr John Armstrong, and a medical branch with Dr Alexander Reith appointed as the first SEC medical officer.  Up to this point, when SEC officers wanted a medical opinion they sought out local general practitioners or municipal officers of health.  Armstrong and Reith answered to the head of personnel.  The head of personnel in turn, had limited authority in relation to other departments such as the Latrobe Valley power stations.  He could make recommendations to the heads of other departments but he had no authority to enforce these recommendations.

Armstrong and Reith both shared Dr Shiels' concern about the exposure of SEC employees to dust.  Armstrong sent to England for an Owens Jet Dust Counter for the purpose of taking dust counts throughout SEC workplaces, seeking assistance from the IHD in training SEC safety officers to use it.  He also advocated the introduction of medical examinations for underground workers at Kiewa.  Reith, a general practitioner, had some experience in industrial medicine and he backed Armstrong, adding his view that although the dust counts that were done at Kiewa were inconclusive, what he had seen of conditions there, led him to judge that workers were at considerable risk of silicosis.  He further advised that the Commission ought to introduce, as a minimum, the standards relating to dust that the IHD had established although he did agree that it was doubtful that the Commission was legally obliged to do so.  Overall, SEC records suggest that there was no substantial division of opinion between Reith and Shiels on the matter of dust management within the SEC.

The SEC Responds to Pressure

Dr Shiels' interest in bringing the dust hazard to the attention of unions and employers persisted into the 1950s right up to his retirement in 1956.  Under his direction Dr D.L. Gordon Thomas began a survey of workers in dusty trades with the aim of finding 'some facts on what had happened in Victorian industry in the immediate past in terms of industrial chest diseases'.  Unions and employers cooperated in the study.  In 1956, a year before the paper was published in the Medical Journal of Australia, The Age reported on Thomas' findings, noting, 'a disturbingly high incidence of asbestosis among workers regularly handling asbestos'.  Shiels also investigated the occurrence of silicosis amongst Victorian workers which, in 1951, had not yet been recognised as a 'proclaimed' disease, that is, one that was formally recognised as being linked to specific occupations.  It was not until 1958 that Shiels' efforts to have silicosis proclaimed in Victoria were successful.  New South Wales had introduced such legislation in the 1920s.

At the end of 1953 the SEC took steps to improve its relations with the IHD.  Reith's appointment may have been a factor in this.  There are no signs of any significant divergence in views between the 'company' doctor and Shiels.  However, it is more likely that in moving to improve its relations with the IHD the SEC was responding to pressure from higher authorities.  Around this time, Dr Shiels, frustrated by SEC officers' refusal to take the dust hazard seriously, approached the Crown Solicitor for an opinion on whether the powers of the Governor-in-Council could be brought to bear on the SEC to ensure that it adhered to the same regulations regarding dust that governed the activities of other businesses.  

Shiels' persistence, combined with the pressure exerted by Reith and Armstrong, did result in some change in the SEC's approach to the dust hazard.  By 1954 dust management practices were being introduced at Kiewa, together with the medical examination of workers applying for tunnelling work.  Late in that year a senior SEC manager visited Dr Shiels in his office and assured him that whatever had gone on in the past, in the future he would receive the fullest cooperation from the Commission and that, indeed, Commission officers would welcome the IHD's assistance.  The only proviso this officer noted was that Commission officers would veto any remedial action recommended by the IHD if they considered it 'unreasonable', a reservation that suggests there had in fact been little alteration in the fundamental view within the Commission that the expertise of its senior engineers was superior to that of other professionals.

At this time Armstrong was provided with a copy of the Victorian Gazette No 1148, dated December 8, 1954 and asked to report on how the regulations it contained regarding the management of hazardous substances within confined spaces would apply within the Commission.  Shortly after this the manager of Personnel sent a memo to departmental heads, including the General Superintendent at Yallourn and the Construction Engineer at Kiewa, advising them of the existence of these regulations and requesting departmental heads to 'take the necessary action to ensure compliance'.  Subsequently a copy of the regulations was sent to all departmental heads.

The events outlined above did not alter in any way the fundamental view of the engineers in charge of SEC operations that they were the best judges of conditions in SEC power stations.  Even Armstrong who had been unremitting in his attempts to have dust containment measures introduced at the Kiewa works, displayed evidence of this view in an interview with Shiels.  In response to a question concerning the capacity within the SEC for interpreting tests carried out by its officers, he replied that it would be better in the long run for the Safety Branch to 'discover where possible toxic dust may exist and then to refer the slides to the experts at the health department' (the IHD), rather than have the IHD, which 'knew nothing of the internal workings of our organization', carry out its own investigation.  

Armstrong's reply reinforces the view that beneath the apparent softening of opposition within the Commission to advice from the IHD, SEC officers believed fundamentally that they were best placed to judge a situation and to assess what action was necessary in the final instance.  This was evident in the apparent acceptance of dust control regulations.  Apart from the Kiewa project, it appears that no steps were taken to ensure that they were implemented, nor that regulations relating to dust in confined spaces would be adapted to the widespread environmental dust in the power stations.  

Even within the SEC the engineering perspective dominated.  This is demonstrated by the position of the Personnel Department within the organisation.  Reith, for example, had very clear ideas on how occupational hazards should be dealt with but neither he, nor Armstrong had the authority to back up their advice.  They had to go through their own manager, the head of the Personnel Department and he did not have any authority in relation to other departments.  The manager of Personnel may have been inclined to agree with Reith's view that 'engineers had little idea of safety planning' but because 'planning was not the function of the Personnel Department [it] could only bring matters … considered important to the notice of management'.  

A further obstacle lay in way relations between Head Office and the Yallourn territory had evolved.  In the 1930s the organisational structure was sharply divided between these two sections and the effects of this were felt in the post-war period when attempts were made strengthen the control of Head Office.  The records suggest that the 'wars' between Head Office and Yallourn continued to the point where, in 1962, the Chairman of the Commission, Dr W.H. Connolly took the step of extending 'particular guidance' on the distribution of authority within the Commission, stating that 'it is the responsibility of Head Office to 'prescribe' and it is Yallourn's obligation to 'fulfill'.

In the eyes of senior SEC officers the dust episode was closed in 1955.  The focus on dust in the IHD and Dr Shiels' efforts to get the SEC to take this hazard seriously, seem to have stimulated sufficient interest in the matter for it to become an issue in the political campaign preceding the 1955 state election.  Unions do not appear to have been involved.  This was a time of conflict within the labour movement leading to the split in the Australian Labor Party in 1955.  However, SEC managers were sensitive to public criticism.  They felt compelled to reassure the incoming Bolte government that they were not to be faulted on the dust issue by taking one of the successful Liberal candidates, J.C.M. Balfour, on a tour of the Yallourn works.  To support their case officers were able to cite a recent example of remedial action being taken in response to a complaint by the FEDFA about the dust released from burst vacuum extraction plant bags.

This response, however, rather than indicating any shift in the Commission's view of the dust hazard, illustrates the extent to which the medical view of the dust problem had failed to shift the fundamental conviction of SEC engineers that they were best placed to identify health hazards within the SEC's operation.  As in 1944, action was taken only because the union complained, an approach that Dr Reith would criticise frequently throughout the 1960s; as in 1944 action was only taken in regard to the specific focus of the complaint, ignoring the widespread atmospheric dust in the power stations; and, again as in 1944, there was no suggestion that workers should be medically examined to assess any ill-effects of dust exposure.

The only difference between the incident in 1944 and the one in 1955 was that Commission officers responded to the complaint before the union was driven to seek assistance from an outside authority.  This change, however, did not go very deep as can be seen George Wragg's account of how, in 1965, unionists again sought assistance from the IHD because power station supervisors failed to investigate combustion gases leaking from flue ducts in the Yallourn power station.  


The social, economic and political environment of post-war Australia posed significant challenges to the SEC as Victoria's sole producer and distributor of electricity.  Production had to be maintained under adverse conditions that were often beyond the SEC's control, and the organisation had to be reconfigured to meet the demands of a society that had undergone big changes since the early 1920s when the SEC was established.  SEC engineers' response to the asbestos dust hazard was bound up in the necessity to maintain production but their approach to this problem reflected their resistance to a changing organisational environment, changes demonstrated in the centralisation of control in Head Office and the introduction of medical knowledge into the productive environment.  

Industrial organisations now operate in a very different environment.  However, recommendations made by the 2005 Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee inquiry into workplace exposure to toxic dust suggest the SEC's response to the asbestos hazard raises issues that are relevant for today.  It appears that organisational structure and culture can still operate to marginalise knowledge about dust hazards and to limit workers' capacity to secure the information they need to make their own judgement concerning dust hazards.  Dr Shiels' emphasis on combining dust management and the regular health surveillance of workers as a basis for stimulating appropriate prevention and control systems is as relevant today as it was in the 1950s.  This approach is especially important in identifying new sources of toxic dust, a field that the asbestos, silica and other stories show, is only too open to the manipulation of knowledge to protect interests that are likely to be adversely affected by the introduction of regulation.  Finally, this 1950s case study highlights the vital role of independent voices in the occupational health context, be they agencies of government, medical practitioners, researchers or trade unions, a point that is only too relevant in this era of waning societal commitment to occupational health in Australia and elsewhere.


This article is a condensed version of a previously-published paper:

'Perceiving a Dust Hazard in Ordinary Conditions of Work', Health and History 2011, 13 (1): 1-25. (Funded through the Roger Coates Labour History Grant, Search Foundation, Sydney)

Of related interest:

  • 'Asbestos Disease in Australia: Looking Forward and Looking Back'; 'The Latrobe Valley: Perspectives on Asbestos Issues', 'Make History but Don't Forget the Past', New Solutions 2008, 3 (18): 361-91.
  • 'Investigating 'Community' through a History of Responses to Asbestos-Related Disease in an Australian Industrial Region', Social History of Medicine 2008, 21 (2) 361-379.

These are available from the authors on request.  Please email  Cecily Hunter

* Cecily Hunter is an Honorary Fellow, Centre for Health and Society, School of Population Health
   Anthony LaMontagne is Associate Professor, McCaughey Centre, School of Population Health