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Case study – waterside workers

Turner Freeman has acted for many waterside workers who unloaded asbestos fibre in Adelaide, as well as the ports in Victoria, Sydney and Queensland and for truck drivers who carted the asbestos fibres from ports to factories, and the finished product from factories to customers.

James Hardie, at their Largs Bay and Elizabeth West factories, manufactured huge amounts of fibro materials from the early 1940′s onwards. Asbestos materials were also manufactured in South Australia by Bells Asbestos and Bradford Insulation. The raw materials for these products (along with many other asbestos products used around South Australia) were brought in almost exclusively by ship through Port Adelaide

Waterside workers describe the conditions they worked in unloading bags of raw asbestos fibre as being extraordinarily dusty. The bags of asbestos fibre were stacked into the holds of ships. Wharfies used hooks to lift the sacks and throw them into nets in which they were winched out from. Sometimes the sacks broke as the hook was used and the contents spilled out into the air around the workers and in the hold. As the nets were winched out of the hold, dust from broken bags fell down onto the workers below like snow.

Many wharfies talk of looking like snowmen after doing work unloading an asbestos cargo. They were often paid ‘dirt money’, a small amount of extra money to compensate them for having to work with a dusty cargo. None of the men were warned of the dangers of asbestos.

Turner Freeman ran an important case in NSW, Gibson v The Stevedoring Industry Finance Committee. This case, along with a Victorian case, established the liability of the Commonwealth Government to waterside workers for their exposure to asbestos. This is important as most waterside workers did not work for a single employer, but were part of a pool of labour and spent short periods of time at various stevedoring companies. Many years later most could not recall all of the stevedoring companies they had worked with where they had been exposed to asbestos. The Court held that the Commonwealth was liable for asbestos injuries, as Commonwealth bodies had directed the workers as to where they should work and as to the safety and conditions of their workplace.

In addition to waterside workers, many other workers were exposed to asbestos in the process of transporting the raw fibre to factories for manufacture.

Mr Bevan

Mr Bevan was a truck driver for many years. His job was to drive between the James Hardie factory and the Port of Adelaide, carting bags of asbestos fibre. He developed asbestosis, which ultimately led to his death. Mr. Bevan instructed Turner Freeman Lawyers to run his claim. It was run to verdict where the Court awarded him $293,640.08 plus costs.

In his judgment, Judge Curtis of the Dust Diseases Tribunal said in relation to Mr. Bevan:

“The plaintiff, suffering as he is, yet determined to cling to life, must feel the futility for his purpose with each gasp of breathlessness, never knowing in his daughter’s words ‘if that’s the moment’. He has experienced the agony of death not once, but repeatedly. This will continue until life is drawn from him or he succumbs to despair. His suffering has the liniments of the deepest suffering which is not pain but loss, sadness, futility and despair.

The defendant’s tort has not merely caused this man’s physical pain, but has generated in the mental anguish which he would almost certainly exchange for pain in return for the prolongation of his life.”

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