Chapter six


Capitalist production … is extremely sparing with the realised labour that is objectified in commodities. Yet it squanders human lives, living labour, … squandering not only flesh and blood, but nerve and brain as well.

K. Marx, Capital, III.[1]

11,505 words


Building and construction have been terrible for the damage that their operations have wrecked on life, limb and longevity. Stonemasons died of silicosis, many before they turned forty; their fate had shadowing their clamour for an Eight-Hour day from the 1840s. Plasterers also had their lungs dusted. Painters were poisoned with lead. By working outdoors in all weathers, labourers suffered pleurisy and pneumonia, rheumatics and arthritis. Cuts turned septic. Before antibiotics, puncture wounds could prove fatal, as happened to a worker on the Harbour Bridge who died of tetanus after crushing his thumb. Profit-takers concealed the hazards. When the harm could no longer be hidden, the employers muddied the nature and extent of the problem. James Hardie’s behaviour over asbestos reproduced the spin perfected by the tobacco corporates. For every labourer killed on site, many more die from work-related diseases, on which Australia collects no data beyond compensation statistics, which “seriously underestimate” the “true extent” of non-traumatic harms.[2]

Four forces pushed the rates of illness and injury above those to be expected from bad luck. The prime driver was the profit motive expressed through speed-ups and cost-cutting. Connected to that imperative for capital has been the failure of authorities to enforce even their inadequate regulations. Thirdly, union officials, notably in the AWU, but at times also in the ABLF, turned a lazy eye to hazards. Finally, the labourers had to teach each other why fast workers die young.

Prevention of illness and injury needed more than professionals. Regulations about equipment, protective gear, repetitive strains and clean air have to be enforced. The right of union officials to enter sites without notice was crucial when government inspectors were phoning the boss to say they will be around tomorrow for a whiskey. Organisers and job reps put as much faith in their manipulation of the “Bluff Act” as in municipal regulations. The key became rank-and-file control over when it was safe to work. Labourers improved their health and safety from the 1960s as the BLF revived into a fighting union.

The churn of the labour force and the sprawl of sub-contracting made it harder to connect damage, treatment and compensation to a specific site, a single employer or one work practice. Labourers, therefore, dealt with harms on an industry-wide basis. When ABLF General Secretary Gallagher looked back on 30 years of the Federation’s successes in campaigning for safety, he identified three factors: “united action and education of workers on a job-by-job basis, pressuring individual employers, and by introducing health and safety as a bargaining tool during wage negotiations.”[3] Employers denounced the making of safety into an industrial issue because they knew that union activism would impose more penalties for negligence than regulators ever would attempt.[4] 

The money-spinners in the building industry attacked the costs of improving conditions, not the risks. In March 1987, the recently retired General-Manager of the Darling Harbour Authority told a dinner of Construction Contractors that tougher OHS laws were hindering developers and should be repealed. Eight months later, eleven building workers were injured in a single incident at Darling Harbour.[5] Similarly, the blueprint for industrial relations that the Building Owners & Managers Association (BOMA) proposed that year was thoughtful on every issue except health and safety. Existing legislation and codes, BOMA concluded, were “adequate”, and penalties “sufficient”. The only reform that the Association wanted was to stop the unions’ using OHS as a tactic to “force concessions” on other matters. Elsewhere, the document stressed the incompetence of foremen and supervisors as a source of industrial disputes. BOMA did not extend this recognition of management failures to the frequency of conflicts around OHS.[6]

This chapter touches on nine aspects of health and safety. It begins by noting the low level of research before surveying silicosis, asbestosis, poisons, dermatitis, hearing loss and skeletal damage. The discussion then shifts to inclement weather and the dilemma of dirt money before ending with recent resistance by employers to safety regulations.

Several hazards from building work were “hidden” because their impacts were not as immediate as a brick on the cranium. Examples include skin cancers, hearing loss, damage to vital organs from heat stress and fluid loss, and long-term strains on bone and muscle. Those ailments needed research funds to identify their causes and frequencies as a step towards prevention. Prevention is the heart and lungs of health and safety. That priority runs counter to a medical industry organised around cures provided by drug companies and through private practice. This bias towards profit-taking kept research into occupational health and safety as a poor relation of medical science, as the Commonwealth Statistician reported in 1925:

The importance of industrial hygiene in the field of preventive medicine has not yet received recognition in the medical schools of Australia. The subject is practically ignored in the ordinary curricula, and facilities are not available for post-graduate work.[7]

The Technical Education Branch in NSW was almost alone in offering courses in Industrial Hygiene. Several studies of mining reported on lead poisoning and “black lung” but did little to improve conditions underground. Committees of inquiry were devices for delay.

When the Commonwealth set up a Department of Health in 1921, it included a Division on Industrial Hygiene. Smaller agencies produced statistics and advice, for instance, the Industrial Commission in Queensland investigated the hazards to cement workers in 1926,[8] while Standards Australia reported on equipment and materials.[9] Yet, comprehensive and uniform statistics remained as partial as the enforcement of regulations. The anti-labour Federal government disbanded the Industrial Hygiene Division as a cost-cutting measure early in the 1930s. After the Pacific war, Federal Labor added an Occupational Health Section to the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney. State Departments of Labour employed a few scientists whose findings are sampled below. OHS practitioners set up a professional Society in 1969 but remained a backwater within Public Health, itself a minor part of the medical establishment. After 12 years of trying to lift the profile of OHS, the retiring President the OHS Society told the Federal Minister for Health in 1981 that the attitude of the Coalition government had left him “at best, saddened and, at worst, cynical.”[10]

During the 1960s, a small but growing number of doctors broke from the fee-for-service model to offer preventive and community medicine. Melbourne medicos with a commitment to social equality joined with meat workers to establish a clinic and research centre in Footscray, with an early project on industrial noise.[11] Whitlam scuttled proposals to place such centres at the heart of Labor’s overhaul of the health system, championing the commodity model against the community approach. In 1973, the radicals joined the Doctors Reform Society to support a national health service; from 1977, their magazine, New Doctor, gave space to OHS claims which did not suit the professional journal with its quest for academic status.

Workers’ Health Centres
Spurred on by the Fraser regime’s assault on universal provision under Medibank, another group of activists set up a Workers’ Health Centre at Lidcombe in 1977, relying on volunteers and a couple of staff drawing minimum wages. Similar Centres opened in all the mainland States. They began from the conviction that employment need not be so destructive if employees became informed and active on the job, and if unions engaged in politics beyond the parliamentary circus. Over the next eleven years, the Centres attended to the sweep of issues about health and safety in the workplace. The staff helped wage-earners of every kind, from teachers to miners. The Centres and their union allies were at the forefront of exposing the Moloch that was James Hardie. Against every malady, the collectives prescribed the workers’ right to know.

The Centres’ other major effort went into retaining the funds they needed to expose hazards and support victims. The Centres had backing from militant unions and trickles of cash from government agencies. Thus, the managers were forever struggling to meet running expenses, and never secured the longer-term finance needed to plan their services to match the need.[12] The little money that Lidcombe got from WorkSafe came on condition that its educational activities be subject to the right-wing Labor Council so that Lidcombe was starved of funds to protect the hobbling of workplace activism under the Accord. Control of health and safety slipped from rank-and-filers to a Federal Commission.[13]

Money flowed into academic research following the creation of WorkSafe and WorkCover in the mid-1980s. The experts got their own publication in 1978, later called the Journal of Occupational Health and Safety, Australia and New Zealand. Its scholarly credentials made it a source of information not advocacy, in contrast to the Workers’ Health Centre’s agitational Work Hazards (1977-88). After 1996, research fell victim to the Coalition’s union-bashing, under which the National Institute of OHS deteriorated into turf wars over funding.[14] By then, building workers had more information on the number and nature of deaths and injuries, data which Sydney rock-choppers had known from experience in the 1900s.

Labourers clawed Sydney from its sandstone. Digging for sewers, the underground rail and high rises - even suburban blocks - generated clouds of silica. Silicosis sometimes took years to show up so that doctors misreported the condition as tuberculosis. The damage is not caused by dust clogging the lungs. Rather, in trying to expel the particles, the air sacs are scarred, which stops the lungs from stretching as much as they need to do to take in enough breathe. Victims smother from the inside.

One contractor acknowledged in 1908 that within two years, strapping navies “pine away to almost nothing”. Because the Public Works Department (PWD) in New South Wales put cost-saving above saving lives, contractors won jobs by driving their labourers to work longer hours in the dust. Another employer remarked: “A contractor does not take a job to slaughter men; but at the same time he has to make a living.”[15] The difficulties that labourers faced in making their living explained why some accepted the wages of death. With labourers paid for a full week, their annual earnings were about a fifth below those for a man in consistent work. By contrast, rock-chopping on PWD jobs guaranteed a full week’s pay every week of the year – for as short a time as a navvy survived. More rock-choppers would have worked on building sites had they lived long enough.

The rock-choppers formed unions to fight for their lives, breaking away from the United Labourers Protective Society in 1908. In October, they took advantage of a shortage of labour to stop work in support of a six-hour day. In defiance of the Industrial Disputes Act, which made strikes illegal, four leaders went to prison, thereby strengthening the resolve of the members and attracting support from other unions. The Industrial Court, the Press and the Premier spurred the contractors on to lock out the workforce. The Sydney Morning Herald saw that the workers were “face to face with the state.” The men refused to return until all their demands had been met and their leaders released. They won that round.[16] The battle continued for reduced exposure. Twenty years later, the United Labourers’ Protective Society withdrew its claim for a 35-hour week for trench-diggers in exchange for higher wages and the supply of masks and goggles by employer. In 1939, the ABLF’s Federal Award claimed a 15-minute break every two hours for rockchoppers.[17]

A ration of sand
New South Wales introduced the Workers Compensation (Dust Diseases) Act in 1942. Within five years, 87 claims had been accepted, including 19 for deaths. Six widows got payments after post-mortems on their husbands who had not claimed. By early 1973, compensation had been paid to 496 workers, of whom 407 had died.[18] Among those victims were men who had built the Snowy Mountains hydro where bonuses for besting time-schedules sent workers back into dynamited tunnels to breathe in 4,000 parts per million whereas the International Labour Organisation set the safe minimum at 200 per cubic centremeter of air.[19]

“Boom brings fatal dust pollution”, headlined Sydney’s Daily Telegraph in 1972.[20] After a revival of city building had led to a new epidemic of silicosis. At the Hotel Metropole site early in 1971, labourers were excavating to a depth of nearly 4 metres for 48-60 hours a week in double shifts. Under one skyscraper in the Sydney CBD, the level was up to 6,000, instead of 200, while the particles per cubic centremeter in the King’s Cross tunnel were 90 times the ILO standard.[21]The Minister announced in August 1972 that “control of dust arising from excavation work generally had been under consideration for some time now.”[22] In truth, it had been “under consideration” for seventy years. Instead, the government suggested that any bad case should be reported to the inspectors. The unions used the public’s inconvenience from the dust to win protection for on-site workers.

When the government set up a Standing Technical Committee on Dust Control, the AWU delegate never came. After continuing poor attendance, the meetings became quarterly. At the third meeting, the ABLF representative reported that his members had embarked on a six-month campaign to eliminate the killer. From 1 May 1973, unsafe jobs were to be stopped for 24 hours. [23] This action forced amendments to workplace laws so that after 1 December 1973 contractors were not allowed to let dust particles escape, though the threat has returned.[24]

A Scientific Officer at the Health Commission, Dr Eva Francis, reported in 1973 that it was “almost an academic exercise to take a dust test in Sydney sandstone.” She feared that “the numbers in this State with silicosis can only be expected to grow to epidemic proportions.”  In one case, a man aged 44 years had operated a jackhammer for seven years, mainly in pier holes. During the previous two years, he had complained of breathlessness at any exertion; his lung-functions were down to 50 per cent of normal. The Compensation Board awarded him a 100 per cent pension. Dr Francis identified three behaviours compounding the menace in the city excavations:

Firstly, there is the problem of a largely non-English speaking work-force making communication difficult.

Secondly, there is the migratory, gypsy-like habits of the sub-contractors as compared to the permanency of say the moulders in the foundries of whom ‘dust on the lungs’ is almost a myth.

And thirdly, it is an open-air situation in contrast to the usual factory atmosphere. The men feel that they are safe in the fresh air.

The dust could be eliminated with a $10 water spray, a device developed by workers at the Water Supply and Sewerage Board and made available free to other employers. Nonetheless, water sprays were not fitted on the excavations for the Eastern suburbs railways until 1971. Francis pointed out

The solution to the jack-pick problem is a simple, inexpensive coil attachment and a water flow. The Union appears to be the only hope for these men. Only in the last 3 months, since they have insisted upon it, has water been available.

Echoing the pleas of the rockchoppers from 70 years before, she concluded:

… the comment can only be that these men are the new convict labour of a “progressing” Australia. What price progress? This land of sunshine, this land of plenty, cannot afford a trickle of water to go with the sandstone rations.[25]

Silicosis was concentrated in segments of Sydney and could be contained with simple equipment. Employers were profiting from another dust which had been killing workers throughout the century and across the planet.

Between 1945 and 1955, Australian production of fibro sheeting from asbestos cement trebled from 8 to 23 million square metres. By 1961, one house in six was fibro. The self-builder favoured this material because it was cheap, easy to apply and available. The advertising said nothing about harms. Asbestos installed in multi-storey blocks as a fire retardant menaced the office workers. (By the 1980s, vermiculite provided an alternative.) At even greater risk were the labourers sent in to strip out asbestos covering which owners claimed was dangerous only if disturbed.

When Victorian Health officials examined 300 asbestos workers in 1952, one in three had fibres in their sputum, and half of those had positive X-ray findings. Five years later, the researcher reported the results in the Medical Journal of Australia:

The pulmonary fibrosis of asbestos workers is insidious in its onset, irregular in its course, and variable in its termination; but once established it constitutes a grave threat to life and health.

He defended his findings on the grounds that he preferred not to wait until his patients were dying before confirming their symptoms. He encouraged men to quit the industry, advice which more of them were heeding:

The realisation that their friend who was supposed to have a weak heart for a long time is actually suffering form asbestosis and is eligible for compensation is making most workers very conscious of the hazard.

More of those who stayed were wearing masks, although the occasional dill pushed his coat into an exhaust apparatus because he “didn’t like the draught”. While the Health Department officier waited for the government to gazette stringent regulations, he stressed that workers had to protect themselves.[26]

In 1967, New South Wales added asbestosis to the conditions covered by its Compensation Act. Late next year, newspaper reports of a US survey sparked the ACTU to call for an investigation into the dangers of working with asbestos products. In Queensland, rank-and-file labourers took up the concern as the Building Trades Group promoted awareness of the mass murderer in their midst. In 1970, a second US study revealed alarming death rates. When that investigation had started in 1943 with 632 workers, the researchers had expected 251 deaths from all causes by 1967. Instead, 349 had died. Mortality was almost 100 more than the prediction.[27] Queensland building unions put out an “ASBESTOS KILLS” leaflet. Queensland set limits on emissions in 1971, followed in other States by 1979. The supposition was that workers could swallow a few fibres without risk proved dangerous since there was no safe level.

The cover of the first issue the Lidcombe’s Workers Health Centre’s newsletter, Work Hazards, in October 1977, headlined “The Great Asbestos Conspiracy”. Its perpetrators were the businesses that pervaded the building sector as thoroughly as asbestos did the lungs of its victims. Master Builders and developers accepted assurances from the manufacturers because they shared in the advantages from using asbestos products. Builders adopted the cheapest and hence most deadly methods of working the material. The cover-up was typical of the ways in which capitalists and their state approach workplace safety. The employers began by denying a problem, while their governments did nothing. Under union pressure, the politicians got around to adopting a few rules but did little to enforce them. Throughout, the profit-takers lied – and not just Hardie or the mining companies. Building corporations, such as Hollands, were on the front-line by making unprotected labourers work with asbestos/cement sheeting into the 1980s.[28] The 1978 ABLF Award included a provision to protect labourers working with or near asbestos, but was limited to the safeguards in force in each State and did not insist on a breathing apparatus. The Federation was about to write its own standards.

Stirring the ACT
In the ACT, the ABLF led the battle for the safe removal of asbestos from public buildings and private dwellings. Branch Secretary Peter O’Dea accepted that his union was too small to win by itself, and so built relationships with the white-collar unions covering librarians, public servants and teachers, becoming President of the Trades and Labor Council. When O’Dea had arrived from South Australia in 1976 to revive the ACT Branch, he had few finances and no office, or even an answering machine. To sign up members and collect dues, the Victorians lent him a vehicle. He determined to overcome these weaknesses by action on the jobs: “Unions and officials are supposed to ‘stir’ for a living.” The best of intentions could not surmount the lack of resources in one hit.

O’Dea recalled that he had become aware of the threat from asbestos in 1975 after seeing a US video. His first encounter in Canberra came in 1977-78 at Chisholm High School which was constructed almost entirely out of asbestos cement sheeting. The union raised the problem, “in a fairly general way” for construction workers, but “we didn’t really know what it meant for school children.” Even this mild concern provoked a reaction from the serial killers selling a product which they knew to be deadly:

First thing we knew, there was a virtual plane load of James Hardie executives arriving in Canberra with all these facts and fictions to confuse and bemuse us. I regret to say, the issue largely died. They agreed to some token concessions such as setting up a separate area – an isolated area. This was not proper isolation in terms of air filtration, but just an area where asbestos would be cut and drilled. They said they would clean up the waste too. It was as general as that and I think if we’re going to be honest we have to say the whole thing was a farce.

The building and educational authorities had the resources to find out why asbestos sheeting should never have been used. Instead, they put the labourers, teachers and students at risk.

The ACT Branch learnt as it went along. Unlike the government, it became a quick study about asbestos. O’Dea became alarmed in 1978 when workers on the Police Academy were told to use angle grinders to make the sheeting fit the eaves. They “were as white as Father Christmas.” Blue asbestos was removed from Canberra’s ABC studios in 1979. The experts assured the labourers that cartridge respirators and laundering their overalls was enough protection if the asbestos were hosed down. By 1983, O’Dea complained:

Now we know that those aren’t stringent precautions. In general, our experience has been that there has been enormous suppression of information about the hazards of asbestos dust and we’re only starting to break through that now. We’ve been conned for a long time.

Even with testimony from the Workers’ Health Centre in Lidcombe, the ABLF found it hard to convince government officials. The National Library covered up the hazards because the costs of removal would run into the millions. The media abused the union for refusing to compromise with “the purveyors of powdered death.” The BLs were not for turning:

It’s annoying that the problems of asbestos poison have been known and so well documented for 50 years or more, and have been so well suppressed that we’re fighting a campaign now that should have been concluded. That means that we’re actually missing out on other hazards that we’re not even game to think about at the moment because we don’t have the resources.

It’s indicative of the employer and government attitudes to occupational health that the unions are having to fight such bitter campaigns about things now that should belong to the era of Dickens.

O’Dea could not praise the Lidcombe Workers Health Centre too highly:

We’ve been babes in the wood in terms of occupational health and it’s tremendous to have an organisation which knows something for one thing, is sympathetic for two, and is available to some extent for the third.

Labourers had learnt that half-measures had no place when dealing with asbestos. Their union insisted that all cutting and drilling of asbestos-cement be done in the factory. When John Holland built a sport stadium in Canberra, the Branch made the firm send sheets back to Sydney.[29] Victory seemed complete. The company paid for the Lidcombe Workers’ Health Centre to test each labourer. All cutting and drilling would be in controlled environments. Other builders accepted the new rules. Indeed, the Parliament House Authority “agreed to have no sheeting on the job at all.”[30] At the time, newspaper editors abused the Branch as extremists. The employers used the union’s hard line on asbestos as one more ground for de-registration.

“You’re killers – all of you”
The South Australian Branch took the next step in 1981 by appointing one of its organisers, Jack Watkins, to supervise removal. The first job involved 12 men and women. Their work area was sealed with double-layer plastic. Extractor fans kept a negative air pressure to stop any dust leaking out. The labourers donned space suits with breathing masks. Each time they exited the danger area, they went through two sets of showers, the first to hose down their clothing, and the second to scour their bodies. Half-a-dozen showers a day made them the cleanest BLs in the world. They were also among the first in Australia to be spared the agonies from working with asbestos. The Branch allowed only specialist contractors with the necessary equipment to do the stripping, after negotiations job by job.[31] During 1982, the South Australians urged the removal of blue asbestos from the ceilings of the State’s hospitals. Frustrated at the government’s inaction, Watkins went to a parliamentary sitting on 16 September. As he threw sealed bags of asbestos fibres at two cabinet ministers, he called out: “You’re killers, all of you.”[32]

The Federation called for nation-wide legislation to make the SA Branch practice the national standard. Next year, renovations at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology exposed the failure of employers to follow even such rules as existed. A stoppage over amenities revealed asbestos sheathing on the pipes, confirmed by the Workers’ Health Centre. The contractor had breached his obligation to give 30 days prior notification of any work in areas with asbestos. Equally disturbing was the decision from the Building Industry Disputes Board, which referred to working with asbestos as “a contentious issue”, as if there were some doubt about its deadliness. The Board then revealed why only action on the jobs backed by militant officials could save lives:

The Board considers that the M.B.A. should take immediate action to circularise their members of an appropriate procedure when contracts for renovations and repairs to buildings are being processed to establish whether or not asbestos is present and to ensure that the regulations are observed.[33]

There was not a word about enforcement, still less about penalties, just a wink and a nudge to the employers’ body to pass on information. By contrast, the Victorian Branch had put asbestos up front by designating one of its organisers as its Asbestos and Safety Officer.[34]

When the MBAV got around to holding a seminar on asbestos in May 1986, the technical expert who spoke did the usual trick of sowing confusion. He argued that the existing measurements were not always appropriate or accurate:

If the exposure is reduced, the risk is reduced; while the risk can be extremely small – much smaller than other risks run in everyday life – it cannot be zero unless the exposure is zero. Thus, a situation of potential asbestos exposure is not clear-cut; there are no easy distinctions between “safe” and “dangerous”.[35]

The distinction was clear-cut: there was no safe level. The difficulty was in protecting the labourers who had to remove asbestos because best practice ate into profits. Faced with the greed of the employers and the gutlessness of the regulators, the ABLF backed the total ban that the building unions had placed on working with asbestos. The Federation’s stand could not have been clearer: “DO NOT WORK WITH ASBESTOS”, and it circulated the warning in six languages, for example, Asbesto La Fibra Mortal. When labourers enforced that rule on unionised sites, the NSW Royal Commissioner in 1992 accused them of “salting” sites – as if there were buildings free of the stuff.[36]

Cost-cutting through speed-ups kept the danger ever-present.[37] For instance, roof repairs after the 1999 Sydney hailstorm were a flash point. Such jobs were supposed not to start without notices confirming that all asbestos had been removed, though several builders bought bogus certificates.[38] The spread of “self-employed” operators on renovations renewed the threat.[39]

Gideon Haigh’s 2006 account of James Hardie as serial killer – Asbestos House -  attacked some union officials as “accomplices”. That allegation nailed the AWU for its addiction to sidling up to employers to win coverage. Haigh failed to notice any of the efforts of the building unions sampled above.  The ignorance of a flannelled fool is more forgivable than is his beating up on a young official from a regional Labour Council who was put off the track by a health expert. That organiser had few resources and faced hostile authorities.[40] The source of irresponsibility is beyond dispute. Some 35 years after building unions took a stand against the asbestos plague, the Federal government banned the import of chrysolite asbestos from 2003. Worse still, the 2005 Building and Construction Industry and Improvement Act criminalised union efforts to eradicate asbestos and other killers.

Before tests for  silicosis and asbestosis became effective, diseased lungs were often mis-diagnosed as a form of tuberculosis (TB). For instance, in mid-1929, Mrs West requested assistance for her five children from the Queensland Branch claiming that her husband had contracted TB while operating a concrete mixer; he had not worked for over a year and was hobbling about on sticks.[41] Adding to the uncertainties, the authorities accepted war service as a source of lung conditions. For example, the widow of another Queensland builder’s labourer won compensation after tests endorsed “military tuberculosis” as the cause of death. Her husband had sprained his rib cage on 16 August 1935 when lifting a heavy rock. He received accident pay for two weeks before being admitted to hospital with what seemed to be kidney problems, dying on 25 September. The magistrate accepted that the injury had “lighted up the latent focus of infection and caused the military tuberculosis.”[42]

Builders’ labourers did carry breathing difficulties over from other periods in their working lives, such as mining. Working out of doors increased the levels of pleurisy and pneumonia which scarred the lungs, constricting their functions. The incidence of lung problems was compounded by the almost universal addiction to nicotine, expressed by the term “smoko” for the mid-morning break.

Until the 1940s, TB caused more deaths among young adults and the middle-aged than any other condition. The belief that it was hereditary imposed a stigma on its sufferers whereas the condition was contagious, with its clusters in working-class families being one more penalty from over-crowded housing. Although scientists had developed some medicines, a complete cure needed total rest for six months. No labourer could afford that treatment. Indeed, a sufferer lost most of his invalid pension once he went into hospital, leaving his dependents destitute. In 1937, the National Health and Medical Research Council had resolved: “The economic factor is definitely the most important aspect of the campaign against tuberculosis.” A special pension at a third higher than the basic wage took effect from 1950, slashing the rate of infection to almost zero.[43]

For a time, the battle against asbestos absorbed most attention. Nonetheless, a NSW government investigator in 1981voiced concern at the proliferation of new chemical compounds being introduced with no testing of how they behaved in the multitude of work practices.[44] The wood-preserver, creosote, ate through the protective gloves.[45] Since 2007, the Construction Division has banned cupboards and fittings made out of Medium Density Fibreboard impregnated with formaldehyde.[46]

Labourers encountered all manner of toxins. Some were in the building materials. Some had polluted the soils from previous industries. Other poisons were being produced on the sites under repair. In rare cases, a skin infection could cause death as happened to Fred Stanbury in August 1962 after being issued with unsterilised gum-boots which provoked a rash ending in kidney failure.[47]

The Sulphide Corporation, Cockle Creek, gave more than enough grounds in early 1960 to have its site closed as a health hazard. Organisers documented sulphur fumes, acid fumes, sulphur and pyrites dust, super-phosphate dusts and a white substance on the ground, suspected of having an acid content. At a Compulsory Conference, the Industrial Commissioner admitted that, during his inspection, he had been “conscious of fumes somewhat briefly irritating to the throat, but after a short time such fumes no longer caused any irritation, nor did I have any after effects therefrom.” His comment was typical of lawyers who dropped in. He had been on site for a few hours whereas the labourers endured constant exposure in excavations to a depth of 8 metres.[48] From Gladstone in 1967, one organiser reported on “the worst site that he has organised.” Soda from the plant spread over a big area. He advised the Executive that “if officials were to organise on the site that they should receive the disability allowance.”[49]

Epoxy poisons were so potent that extraordinary precautions were in force around the Opera House. The “Glue Crew” wore rubber gloves and special clothing; they had to avoid the solvent fumes and dust on their skin; immediately after using the resin, they had to wash their hands in separate bathrooms with throw-away soap before drying themselves with disposable towels. These arrangements could not protect the rest of the workforce. Epoxy came off gloves onto the rungs of ladders and thus onto the hands of an unsuspecting climber.[50] Tins and stirring sticks were left lying around. Safety depended on workers looking out for each other. Twenty years later, the MBA’s NSW journal had no embarrassment in printing a photograph of a lad applying epoxy concrete with no protection.[51]

The 1978 Award listed Special Rates for any work involving acids or epoxy substances. In addition to paying an extra 33 cents an hour, the employers had to conform to local regulations, supply protective gear and inform workers of the risks and safety regulations. In the early 1990s, a survey of the use of epoxy coatings found that neither supervisors nor operatives understood the hazards. Workers on only two out of the nine construction sites under investigating knew about the Materials Safety Data Sheets. Gloves were supplied on only one out of the nine workplaces, and were usually of an inappropriate material, leather or cotton, rather than polymer.[52]

A much larger investigation during the 1990s indicated that failure to meet standards was widespread. Fewer than a third of the companies invited to participate agreed to do so. The researcher concluded that employers knew that involving their workers “in the study would cause problems, that is, increase the awareness of occupational skin diseases and perhaps contribute to more compensation claims and costly skin protection.”[53] Ignorance was bliss for profit-takers. They had never been short of anecdotal evidence, and so hid behind the lack of funding for research to maintain their “not proven” defence. Once that protection dissolved along with the gloves, the employers shifted responsibility to individual workers instead of removing the problem at its source.

Following a visit to the Geelong cement works in 1895, an architect reported that the labourers who walked through the cement to shovel it “suffer very much with their feet, the cement making them so tender that they not infrequently bleed.”[54] The lime in cement rotted scaffold ropes. Builders seized on that chemical reaction as an excuse when scaffolds collapsed.[55] If cement rotted ropes, how much damage was it doing to the “framework of human flesh”?

Confirmation that cement caused dermatitis came in the 1950s. Before then, the assumption had been that rashes came from the alkalinity and the abrasiveness of wet cement. In fact, those constituents opened the skin to Potassium Dichromate which gloves could not keep off bricklayers, labourers, plasterers and tilers. The infection might take years to develop. Once established, it was long lasting, the prognosis poor and the infection self-perpetuating.[56] The harm could be prevented by adding a pinch of ferrous sulphate, which put up the price by 1.5%.

Although protective gear and on-site showers reduced cement rashes, as late as the 1940s, the Queensland Branch had to make employers supply concrete workers with gloves.[57] The use of barrier creams was a challenge to manliness, so the builders in A Weird Mob rubbed mutton fat into their hands and boots to keep both soft.[58]

After 1960, concern about cement dust increased as concrete went into more structures, and chemical agents were added to concrete to hasten its curing, before buffering gave off dust. Experts assert that the additives are not toxic. Yet the MBA warned against their use because of the chlorine content.[59] With chemicals linked to 28% of workplace-related deaths in building and construction, labourers worry which compound will be the asbestos of tomorrow.

The acceptance of cash in exchange for disabilities, or risks, appealed to labourers for as long as their weekly earnings were below the industry average. Employers thought it easier and cheaper to pay a disabilities allowance than to clean up sites and to keep them healthy and safe. Unions chased “dirt money” to get around the limits that governments imposed on wages. For instance, in December 1959, 90 Sydney BLs and carpenters stopped a job in O’Connell Street for two-and-a-half days, insisting that the site to be made safe and clean. They also won ₤1 a week dirt money. That victory posed a policy puzzle: should the union have pushed for the site to be cleaned up? Or should it have had more jobs classified as dirty? Was dirt a wage demand or a health issue?

Swapping health or safety for money is wrong in principle. In financial terms, a disabilities allowance is a bad bargain. Extra wages for a few months cannot outweigh the years of incapacity and early death that result from poisons. How many dollars extra a week could pay for asbestosis or silicosis?

Making penalty rates retrospective steered a course around allowing employers either to clean up or to provide a disability allowance. An example of this balancing act came in the deal that the NSW Branch reached with Monier-Bechey in May 1972. The company agreed to pay dirt money for every hour worked. In addition, labourers got extra to make up for the lack of amenities since they had started.[60] An even better combination of safety and penalties came in the 1978 Federal Award in regard to handling asbestos products. The clause mandated the wearing of combination overalls and breathing equipment. The labourers received 33 cents more per hour for the inconvenience of that apparatus, not in exchange for the hazard.

In the 1990s, health experts showed that two-thirds of NSW construction workers ended up with a notifiable hearing loss.[61] If the same numbers had lost an ear, there would have been a hue-and-cry. Industrial deafness is usually slow to develop and its onset mistaken as one more sign of aging. Many labourers have been reluctant to admit to a problem because they feared that complaining would jeopardise their chances of employment.[62]

That work could cause deafness had been documented in 1881 among German railway workers by a researcher who stressed that hearing loss increased the likelihood of other injuries.[63] Even partial deafness added to the dangers faced by builders’ labourers. Ringing or buzzing in the ears (tinnitus) disturbed sleep and induced vertigo; both those conditions worsened the hazards on site. One early sign of trouble is a confusion of sounds; this blur can make the sufferer misunderstand instructions.

Authorities accepted that workers suffered loss of hearing if an explosion burst their ear drums more readily than that persistent exposure to moderate levels of sound also produced significant damage. Constant low frequency noise is as damaging as occasional shrillness. Harm came not just from jackhammers but even from manual typewriters in the ABLF offices. Building workers wrongly assumed that, because they were working in the open, they were less at risk than vehicle builders. Because the damage rarely occurred while a victim was working with a single employer, builders’ labourers confronted problems in claiming compensation. Moreover, deafness went unreported because there was no cure or remedy and hearing aids were as expensive as they were ineffective.

Protection? Employers hoped to meet their duty of care by issuing personnel protectors. The earliest ones had been home-made out of cotton wadding, a practice common in the trenches of the First World War. From the 1970s, commercial plugs and muffs reduced the damage but left labourers less able to pick up warning signals. As building sites became nosier, dogmen replaced their whistles with tugs on a rope, and were later  issued with radio helmets.[64] From early 1973, the NSW Branch insisted that jack-picks be equipped with mufflers.[65] Because noise at work often created a public nuisance, the ABLF again used community inconvenience to win support for reducing decibels at their source.

Scientists protested that protectors should be “the last form of action in a hierarchy of control measures.”[66] Instead, the objective had to be to eliminate excessive noise. Individual protectors repositioned the problems they were supposed to solve. Further weaknesses from relying on individual protectors are that labourers are certain to remove their muffs to hear what is being said, or to wipe away sweat; moreover, ear-muffs had to fit inside helmets which made the clamping of the muffs less secure.[67]

The chief inspector for NSW confessed in 1986 that his powers of enforcement were irrelevant: “If I spent all my time in court, or preparing for it, there’d be no time for inspections.” Anyway, the maximum fine was only $2,000. The regulators relied on persuasion, warning employers that compliance was cheaper than higher insurance premiums,[68] with a judgement for $100,000 leading to their trebling. The rate of compliance was lowest for businesses with fewer than five employees, which was common among building trades. The inspectors acknowledged the advantages to the workers from their looking out for each other: “there’s a lot of self-education going on the shop floor – a lot of health and safety committees have turned their attention to the problems and stung management into action.”[69]

After the damage had been done, workers relied on compensation. During 1988, 10,000 NSW workers got $35m. for hearing loss, with construction workers the second largest group of claimants. In 1992-93, 11% of all injury-diseases cases in the sector were for industrial deafness.[70] Compensation lawyer and leading Communist, E. F. Hill, contrasted the damage inflicted on building workers with the power that had been available to a High Court judge when a jackhammer disturbed his proceedings in Melbourne. Mr Justice Kitto threatened the foreman with contempt. When that move failed, His Honour adjourned the case to Sydney: “But what about the jackhammer operator and his workmates? They had not the luxury of contempt and injunctions. They were compelled to work in order to eat.” [71]

Skeletal strain is another of the harms which can take years to develop yet prove as crippling as a traumatic injury. Labourers learn to pace themselves through each hour of the day to make their bodies last to the end of the week. They then have to get to the close of each year, and across the decades towards a lifetime of wage-earning. Their prime skill is how to stay hard at it for more than a single shift, and for longer than one season. That no task is unskilled came home to office workers sent navvying on relief works during the 1930s depression. Clerks often arrived with prejudices about lazy labourers on public works – “the government stroke”. The newcomers made it a point of pride to put their backs into it. Blisters turned into calluses. Other injuries were not so useful. Orthopaedic surgeons identified “clay-shoveller’s fracture”, a damage to vertebrae in the lower cervical or the upper thoracic. Most sufferers had been digging drains down to three or more metres, when they tossed up wet clay on long-handled shovel, and the load stuck to its broad end. Pain stabbed down their backs. They might hear a crack. They could no longer work. Even manual workers on relief were at risk because years of unemployment had put them “out of training”, and starvation rations had weakened their bodies.[72]

Medical specialists took an interest in this condition because its treatment was complicated and expensive, which was not the case with minor trauma. In seeking treatment at casualty departments, workers suffered a second time because the doctors had not been trained to consider those assaults seriously. In 1962, a labourer got thirteen stitches from a doctor at Brisbane General Hospital who refused to give him a certificate and sent him back to work; the union found him a GP to provide the certificate and reported the first doctor to the BTG.[73] A Brisbane survey recognised that such behaviour involved more than individual prejudice: “Students tend to disregard as boring and unimportant those facets of a course which receive little attention from the important members of the teaching hierarchy”, few of whom dealt with out-patients.[74]

This medical bias affected that third of building workers who were injured each year in the 1960s, so that most labourers left the industry with damage to bone and sinew. From mid-1975 to mid-1977, one in twenty NSW labourers aged between 18 and 35 had needed time off after lower-back damage. Lifting and carrying, jerking a load off the ground or twisting under its weight caused hernias and slipped discs. The rule of bending one’s knees to lift came late and took time to instill. With annual turnover rates of 150% among labourers, training campaigns could never slacken. A survey of construction workers in the early 1990s found that 70% of their injuries were fractures and sprains.[75] Between 2000 and 2004, wrist and hand injuries were the principal reasons for hospital treatment.[76] So, it was not surprising that a Wollongong rigger told a friend: “It’s nearly over for me, and I wish to Christ it was. The arthritis is really bad, my knees swell up and legs ache and I’m losing confidence on heights. I have to get out.”[77] He was 36. Had he been a general labourer, it is unlikely that he would have lasted so long. Only one labourer out of 50 stayed in the industry for more than 20 years. Two reasons for the low rate of retention were jolts to the lower-back and vibration throughout the limbs.[78]

Out of 10,000 workers in the heavy construction sector, 1,074 reported low-back injuries during two years in the early 1980s. Four out of five were labourers.  Two-thirds of the troubles had put the men off work. Half returned in less than two weeks. One in five was away for up to a month. The same percentage needed between one and three months to recover. Not all could return to their previous duties at once, while nearly a fifth went back on light duties before resuming heavy work. Three in 100 were still confined to lighter tasks after five years. One in fifty was permanently incapacitated.[79]

The rate of injury was highest among the younger workers because fewer of those over 35 were still performing the most taxing jobs. The young and the newcomers recorded more than fifth of the injuries. This bias differed from other sectors with similar rates of body stress, where the harms to those over 55 were twice as high. Strain over time compounded the injuries among that half of building labourers who remained on sites for between one and five years. Even the less serious lower-back injuries encouraged labourers to quit the industry, many deciding to leave because of general wear and tear rather than a fracture.[80] Back injuries across the Victorian workforce gave rise to an average of 8,000 claims for compensation each year between 1995 and 1999.[81] Labour-only sub-contractors were in the worst position since their self-employed status lowered the cost of their labour to the corporates by eliminating compensation premiums. One of them remarked: “I have seen guys crawling around on hands and knees because their backs are so sore.”[82]

Despite mechanisation, builders’ labourers bore several of the strains that had afflicted hod-carriers. Whether hoisting timbers, carrying bags of cement or operating jackhammers, the later generations grappled with materials and equipment weighing between 43 and 50kg.[83] Some machinery made matters worse. For instance, replacing the pick and shovel with earth movers and jack-picks shifted the harm from short sharp shocks to constant vibration. One form of that damage occurred because of low frequency tremors through the whole body from the seat in crane or an earth-mover. Using a drill resulted in chronic numbness, known as “white finger”; in extreme cases, the joints swelled and the whole hand turned blue. Jackhammers produced similar symptoms in whichever leg the labourer used to steady the hammer. As with every occupational hazard, the best solution is to eliminate the problem by redesigning the equipment to minimise vibration. Adding dampeners is second best. Allowing more rest breaks runs a poor third.[84] 

The employers’ reliance on inappropriate equipment, and on speed-ups, intensifies the physical demands inherent in labouring. Stress on muscles and bones puts even young labourers out of the industry. Their disabilities leave them chasing lower-paid jobs as cleaners or security guards. Their lifetime earnings shrink. That financial loss combines with their injuries to sour their retirement, during which they face higher medical costs and survive on smaller superannuation. Industrial manslaughter is at one end of a spectrum of the assaults that capital inflicts on its wage-slaves. Body stress is towards the other end.

In all weathers
Australia’s building season is longer than those across much of Europe and the United States. Here, the favoured months vary with the climate of each capital city. While monsoons had shut down the industry in Brisbane for the summer, those months saw the most activity in Melbourne, which suffered from wet winters, just as its four seasons in one day disrupted construction schedules. Planning for high-rises included allowance for the winds of Sydney. Winter conditions in Tasmania delayed the finishing of concrete slabs by as much as five hours, leading to overtime and the expense of hiring lights.

Employers could not afford to pay wage-earners to sit in the shed. The labourers could not afford to work in the wet because doing so increased the chance of injury, short-term sickness and long-term disablement, and thus cut into their life-long earnings. In 1927, a Brisbane widow had won compensation because her labourer husband had died after catching chill on site.[85]

Before labourers got organised, they bore the brunt of these disruptions when they lost time. Putting something aside “for a rainy day” was as practical as it was proverbial. When they did find work, they were stood down without pay for 15-minute blocks because of bad weather. Employers paid only for the minutes when their employees were adding value. A 20% loading on the hourly rate from 1913 brought the annual earnings of a builder’s labourer closer to those of permanently employed workers on the Basic Wage.[86] On wet or windy days around the Harbour Bridge, the men were paid for one of the two hours they waited to see whether the weather cleared; if no start, they went home with only that hour’s money.[87]

A similar rule applied in Western Australia under the 1938 Award, but required militancy to secure its operation. On a bridge at Fremantle, the Communist rigger Paddy Troy stuck up for relief workers whom the foremen ordered to work in the rain. When Paddy started to recite the Clause “If in he opinion of he foreman it is too wet to work …”, the foreman interrupted,

“Oh, that’s if in my opinion it’s too wet.”
“Well, is it wet or is it dry?”
“I don’t have to give you an opinion until you start work.”
“Well, in that case, I’ll soon put you to the test.” Paddy donned wet gear and went out into the rain. “Come on, I want ot go to work. Is it too wet or is it dry?”
“In my opinion it’s too wet but officially it’s dry.”
“Thank you very much. That’s all I want. The award says “your opinion’.”

The relief workers went home with their two hours money.[88]

Gallagher remembered that when he had started in the industry in the late 1940s, “the boss would come up to you and say ‘It’s gonna rain today, home you go.’ That was it. No pay. He was laughing.”[89] During the 1950s, wet money of 32 hours in any four weeks replaced a higher hourly rate to make up for lost time. Labourers henceforth received the allowance when they were stood down, not as a loading on their wages.[90] “Wet money” repositioned the uncertainties that Troy had overcome in the West. Workers initiated the discussion over whether the rain was too heavy for work to continue, but the supervisor held the final say. Without pressure from unions, employers refused to pay men their wet money. The consequences for the labourers’ families could be catastrophic. In one case, a stretch of broken earnings because of rain saw a Sydney labourer evicted and his six children put into institutions as wards of the state.[91] As the Federation regained its strength in the 1960s, the Branches tightened the terms under which members were prepared to go out into the wet. If no conference had begun within 30 minutes, the men were entitled to stop and be paid for the whole day. Complex rules applied about whether they could be transferred to other work, or be made to walk through rain to get to a dry section of the site.[92]

A job at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital had the usual tangle of underpayment, poor safety and few amenities in June 1964 when John McNamara got elected job rep. When the supervisor worried about having only one raincoat for the crew, McNamara “told him we didn’t need raincoats because we didn’t work in the rain. When he asked who was going to wear the raincoat, I told him to wear it himself.” Of course, the subbie had not supplied gum boots. After the men refused to leave the shed without them, the supervisor “suggested that he get one pair so that the men could walk over the wet area one at a time so that he could take them back to the next bloke. I told him that would be alright if he sterilised each one and waited for it to dry. If I did not know that this bloke was a foreman, I would swear blind that he was a comedian.”[93]

To keep working in the wet was crucial for concrete pours. Stopping the operation short meant that the slab might have to be demolished, which cost as much as its construction.[94] Labourers were paid double for continuing to work but had to be supplied with wet weather gear. If no dry clothes were available, they were entitled to go home without loss of pay. The building unions had to battle to make employers supply protective clothing and gumboots in compliance with their Awards.[95]

Late in 1979, when Victorian workers fell ill after finishing concrete pours in the rain, the MBAV treated the matter as one of compensation, and opposed making sickness into an industrial issue. Among the building unions, only the ABLF insisted that colds and the flu be brought under the Award. After all, labourers spent more time in the open than tradesmen.[96]

Two incidents highlight the improvements won by labourers. In November 1958, their Journal commented: “This may sound funny, but don’t work in the rain.” By the 1980s, that precept had become ingrained.[97] Tasmania was the last State to be brought into line with the militancy of the mainland. In 1951, the Right-wing Management Committee had sent “Speed” Morgan, cycling champion and prize-fighter, down from Sydney. Twenty years earlier, “Speed” had pedalled through snow, head winds and sleet to break the Canberra-Sydney record. He made sure that he had an easier time of it in Tasmania. After he died in 1980, aged 72, the FMC dispatched Jim Bacon to quicken the Branch.[98]

During the next year, the Union made Leighton-Candac supply labourers on the Bowen Bridge with quilted balaclavas and “Tasmanian Bluey” jackets.[99] Warm bodies did not melt class bitterness. For 20 months, the project experienced recurrent difficulties because members refused to work in the wet:

Builders’ labourers all over Australia know what it is like to protect our inclement weather clause. It doesn’t matter if it is a monsoonal downpour or a drizzle – building workers don’t work in the wet. This is a matter of health and safety. A decision as to whether it is safe to work or not, can only be made on the job – not at the weather bureau.

The media carried on about grown men sheltering from heavy fogs. Leighton-Candac turned nastier than usual, hoping that the Federation would be distracted by de-registration. Despite those pressures, and after being on the grass for six weeks, only five out of 140 BLs voted to return. The Tasmanians attracted donations from around the country: “This is what being a Federal union is all about. We ask members to hit the kick to support these men and their families.”[100]

The union extended the provisions for working in the wet to “inclement weather” until the 1978 Award covered not only rain but also hail, snow, cold, high wind, dust storm, heat, “or the like or any combination thereof.” The “Inclement” clause came too late to cover extreme events on the Snowy where lightning had ignited explosives down shafts; the Authority kept men at work because of a panic to maintain production schedules.[101] Twenty years later, in the Pilbara, the cyclone authorities issued the “red alerts”.

Cool water and air-conditioning in the sheds or crane cabins reduced the impact of extreme heat or most labourers. Steel-fixers remained the most vulnerable to heat stress. Experts recommended ten minutes rest every hour. The union told members to stop work on hot days just as they would if it were raining. Labourers were also in danger from touching steel when it was burning hot or freezing cold; they could then lose their grip and fall, or let a tool slip onto another worker.

Skin cancer
Ultraviolet rays were one more extreme. Settler Australians suffer the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, with the melanoma type most common among the younger age groups which supply many builders’ labourers. Their incidence of skin cancers increased after attitudes throughout society altered towards clothing. Navvies had been protected for as long as they wore hats, trousers and long-sleeved shirts. From the late 1950s, men and women began to expose more of their bodies, at work and on the beach. Master Builders stopped wearing hats. Labourers began to work all day out in the open in little more than stubbies and Blundstone boots. The hotter the weather, the more likely they were to strip down, and hence the greater their exposure to ultraviolet rays in the middle of the day.

Public health authorities recommended a return to protective clothing and broad-brimmed hats. Other options were for the employers to erect canopies or to supply the most powerful sunscreens so that labourers could smother themselves several times a day. At least, the mid-day break had to be taken under cover. Being out of the sun between 11.30 and 12.30 cut exposure by 17%. A glance around building site shows that none of these precautions has become as commonplace as helmets.[102] When safety helmets had arrived in the early 1960s, a carpenter at the Opera House complained about their poor design:

For many wearers, especially those of Nordic ancestral origins, this is a serious matter. It causes great discomfort. But worse than that, it could cause ill-health. To sensitive skins, excess exposure to the sun can result in skin cancer and other complaints.

So, the workers added a back-flap against sunburn.[103]

OHS is always linked to amenities and compensation. The battles around each have shaped strategy and tactics inside the ABLF and its relations with governments and other unions. That tangle was never more evident than in the conflicts over de-registration during the 1980s.

Victorian organiser Harry Karslake clashed with Gallagher over the unwritten rule that any problems on Grollo jobs went to him as State Secretary. Labourers on the Dandenong hospital complained to Karslake that they had not been paid compensation or overtime. Three phone calls to Bruno Grollo got nowhere. Karslake then left a message that the job had just been stopped. Five minutes later, Grollo was on the phone. The monies were fixed before the day was out.[104]

Developers such as Grollo broke ranks with the MBA by offering labourers higher wages and shorter hours in return for finishing their projects on time and within budget. The Grollos, for instance, had torpedoed the 1974 de-registration by securing a pay rise for all Victorian BLs. Gallagher recalled: “We used them for setting wages for building workers … Once we’d secured negotiations with him we’d get stuck into the other builders. The Master Builders’ Association were furious.”[105] The company signed up for a 36-hour week on the Rialto from 25 July 1983. Four months earlier, however, Bruno Grollo had pleaded guilty to making corrupt gifts to Gallagher. A site inspection at the Rialto in April found illegal scaffolds, power leads on the ground and no safe exit from holes. The 200 workers did nothing for two days but clean up. The Federation’s journal - at last - headlined “No room for favourites in this business”. The report neglected to mention that the April Branch meeting had been disrupted by drunks who abused Grollo’s permanent workforce as wogs and scabs. That outburst came while long-time BLs could not find work but the Grollos were signing on newly-arrived Italians.[106] Gallagher’s connections with the Grollos curtailed the influence that the Branch had in implementing the OHS and compensation reforms promoted under the Cain ALP administration.

The Victorian BLs confronted their ancient foe in 1984 when Tory Legislative Councilors blocked those improvements. The Liberals no longer dared to refuse central inspection. This time, they hoped to keep inspection ineffective by opposing minimum fines for employers who obstructed Department of Labour and Industry officials.[107] On 5 April, the ABLF protested against this obstruction outside the Melbourne headquarters of the Liberal Party, where labourers pulled a wire grill off the building, sparking a punch-up with police. Howls from the press and Liberal politicians led to nine charges against the Asbestos and Occupational Health and Safety Officer, Brian Boyd, for serious assault, wounding and damage.[108]

After the March 1985 State elections, the ALP held its first ever majority in the Legislative Council. Here was the chance to get its OHS changes through parliament. A challenge to the result in the Nunawading Province required a new poll in August. The government therefore rushed its OHS Bill past both houses while the opposition took every procedural opportunity to delay its passage in the justified expectation of winning the by-election. The Liberal leader focused his attack on what he called the “concrete pour” clause which gave elected on-site committees the power to stop unsafe work on full pay: “The Bill will allow trade unions to take over and to revolutionise what occurs in the workplace.”[109]

The Legislative Council debated the OHS legislation in the same week as Cain drove through the Bill to De-Recognise the ABLF. Opposition Councillors alleged that the attack on the union was a sham to court voters in Nunawading. On the contrary, the war against the ABLF was entering a new circle of ferocity. When the ALP cabinet handed the BWIU $500,000 to promote occupational health and safety in 1988, the Age smelt a rat:

Were the payments in any way designed to help the union fight off the remnants of the Builders’ Labourers’ Federation in the recent union election? The suggestion that the BWIU inherited shoddy safety standards from the BLF rings hollow. For all its faults, the BLF was exceptionally militant when it came to policing safety standards. It seems much more likely that the Government wanted to support the BWIU in any way it could.[110]

In yet another of the financial scandals of the Cain administration, its Economic Development Corporation transferred funds to underwrite builders to hold out against the ABLF.[111]

The paradox was that the government eliminated the ABLF from sites at the same time as it legislated to make the union’s policy of worker control over safety into a standard procedure. Through 15 years of struggle, the Federation had established that principle, at the price of de-registration in 1974. Now, its Victorian leaders could not save their Branch, although the flow-on from its militancy protected the lives of labourers for years to come.

“Mr Booze”
The scars from toiling as a labourer are connected to boozing. When Marx wrote that “Religion is the opium of the people,” he did not mean that theology or narcotics put workers to sleep. He knew that faith, like laudanum, deadened the pain so that working people could continue their battle for existence. His meaning becomes clearer once his aphorism is read in context:

Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.[112]

The same can be said of “Mr Booze”. In the days before other pain-killers, alcohol blocked physical hurt from the damage that labouring inflicted on bone and muscle. From the 1920s, alcohol also softened the pain from war-related blows to mind and body. Because real men were expected to grin and bear it, many drank, which was accepted as a strong man’s failing. A call to moderate drinking has to be a demand to end the conditions at work that made excessive alcohol appealing.[113] Do-gooders denounced the heavy drinking but were silent on the heavy lifting.

Early in the nineteenth century, opium displaced gin or rum as the drugs of choice among the poor, to be overtaken, in turn, by beer and plonk. Since the 1960s, the substances on offer swung back towards opiates once pot-smoking became as commonplace among the generations of labourers as grog had been for their uncles. In April 1988, ACT Branch Secretary Peter O’Dea put out a flyer on the dangers from grog and drugs:

It’s also difficult to draw the line between a small amount of alcohol at lunchtime, two or three middies say, or four or five schooners. One thing’s for sure, there are occasions when workers are put in danger by people who have had too much, but over the years there are some checks and balances which have developed, mainly on site, rather than regulating the office drunks [i.e., the bosses].

O’Dea was also concerned about the political consequences from the sale of marijuana. In two cases, he wrote, “basically decent young people who support genuine unionism ripped us off for goods and money, because their addiction drove them to it.” An additional danger came from letting dealers into the union since they were more likely to be informers, police plants and provocateurs.

Next year, the NSW Building Trades Group established a Drug and Alcohol Committee through which workers developed a policy for disciplining and rehabilitating any of their fellows who turned up under the influence. This approach carried forward the ideal that “a union constitutes a school for the working class … instills thoughtfulness … and broadens the mental horizon, thereby bringing hope and cheer to the hopeless and cheerless.”[114] The program has been severed from its origins as a worker initiative since its Board now includes four bosses. The addiction of the latter, whether to cocaine or profits, remains beyond the Program’s reach. Its scope has been limited by the increase of “self-employed” outside its authority. In addition, the Building Industry Improvement Act has marginalised union involvement with health and safety on site, thereby trimming the program’s effectiveness.[115]

Governments and employers individualise the problem by testing employees for drugs and alcohol.[116] This approach follows the turning of socio-economic imperatives for capital into pseudo-medical conditions among workers. In the nineteenth century, doctors had diagnosed a disease afflicting chattel slaves, known as “drapetomania”, its symptom being the compulsion to run away, which was cured by the abolition of slavery.[117] With workers demonstrating how sick they are of being bullshitted and bullied, how many of today’s illnesses are induced by wage-slavery? An examination of the “ingrained culture” of capitalism suggests that alcohol and drug abuse remain “protests against real suffering”, flowing from the indifference to creative work that production for profit demands of wage-slaves.

[1] K. Marx, Capital, III, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1981, p. 182.

[2] Report of the NSW Government Commission of Inquiry into Occupational Health and Safety, NSW Parliamentary Papers, 4th Session, 1981, pp. 179-83; P. Leggat, “Reporting of industrial accident statistics for back injury in Queensland ”, Journal of Occupational Health and Safety – Australia and New Zealand (JOH&S ANZ), 14 (3), June 1998, pp. 267-74; M. Sim, “The need for an occupational disease surveillance system in Australia ”, JOH&S ANZ 23 (6), December 2007, p. 557.

[3] The General, authorised biography of Norm Gallagher, p. 13 of second chapter in an unpublished 1989 typescript.

[4] Breen Creighton and Neil Gunnington (eds), The Industrial Relations of Occupational Health and Safety, Croom Helm, Australia, Sydney, 1985, pp. 171-89.

[5] Building Worker, April 1987, p. 9; 14 November 1987, p. 9; Work Hazards, August 1988, p. 4.

[6] Building Owner & Manager, May 1987, p. 15.

[7] Commonwealth of Australia , Official Year Book, 18, 1922, pp. 522-55; Lenore Layman, “The Study of Occupational Health in Australia ”, Labour History, 52, 1987, pp. 1-14.

[8] Queensland Industrial Gazette, June 1928, pp. 515-27.

[9] The Standards Association of Australia issued codes for cranes and hoists in June 1938. SAA Bulletin, July 1928, 1 (1) p. 3, and 1 (2), p. 8.

[10] Occupational Health, September 1981, p. 51.

[11] Australian Builders Laborers’ Federation (ABLF) Records, NSW Branch Records, Mitchell Library (ML), MSS 4789, Box MLK 04261.

[12] Work Hazards, May 1988, p. 4.

[13] Ben Bartlett, “The Politics of Occupational Health”, New doctor, 13, 1979, pp. 12-18; “History of the Sydney Workers’ Health Movement”, Australian left review, 88, Winter 1984, pp. 40-45; “Origins of the Workers’ Health Centre”, Hal Alexander and Phil Griffiths (eds) A Few Rough Reds, Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, Canberra Region, 2003, pp. 124-34; C. Le Nevez and L. Strange, “Delivering workplace solutions in OHS: the workers’ health model”, JOH&S ANZ, 5 (1), February 1989, pp. 45-52; D. Biggins, et al., “The role of the Workers’ Health Centres”, JOH&S ANZ, 5 (4), August 1989, pp. 317-25.

[14] Michael Quinlan, “Psychological and Sociological Approaches to the Study of Occupational Illness: A Critical Analysis”, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology, 24 (2), July 1988, pp. 189-207; Michael Quinlan, “Forget evidence: the demise of research involvement by NOHSC since 1996”, JOH&S ANZ, 16 (3), June 2000, pp. 213-27.

[15] Quoted Peter Sheldon, “Job Control for Workers’ Health: The 1908 Sydney Rockchoppers’ Strike”, Labour History, 55, November 1988, p. 41.

[16] Sheldon, pp. 50-54.

[17] Newcastle Construction, 15 May 1930 , p. 7; NSW Minutes, 25 November 1939 , MLK 02475.

[18] NSW Builder’s Laborer, August 1959, pp. 5-9; Nation Review, 29 June 1973, p. 1130; Penelope Read, Workers’ Compensation (Silicosis) Committee, Preliminary Inventory, The Archives Authority of New South Wales, Sydney, 1962; Milton Boulter, Workers’ Compensation Practice in New South Wales, Law Book co., Sydney, 1966, pp. 60-65; C. P. Mills, Workers’ compensation (New South Wales), Butterworths, Sydney, 1969, pp. 178-82.

[19] Brad Collis, Snowy: the making of modern Australia , Tabletop Press, Palmerston (ACT), 2000, p. 163.

[20] Daily Telegraph, 5 October 1972 , p. 5d-f.

[21] Industrial Hygiene Branch, Department of Health, to Department of Labour and Industry, 8 February and 30 November 1971 , MLK 04268.

[22] F. M. Hewitt to NSW Trades & Labor Council, 1 August 1972, and H. Cook to T&LC, 1 September 1972, MLK 04266.

[23] NSW Builder’s Labourer, April 1973, p. 23, June 1973, pp. 9 and 47; Nation Review, 22 June 1973, p. 1104, letter from Joe Owens, 6 July 1973, p. 1163.

[24] National Safety (NS) September 2005, pp. 24-26.

[25] Typescript of lecture at Lidcombe Health Centre, 27 July 1973 , pp. 23-24, MLK 04266.

[26] D. L. Gordon Thomas, “Pneumonokoniosis in Victorian Industry”, Medical Journal of Australia (MJA), 19 January 1957 , pp. 75-77.

[27] Australian, 22 October 1968, p. 11g; Sydney Morning Herald, 27 May 1970, p. 3h-i; Robert Barnes, “Asbestos and Malignant Disease”, MJA, 11 November 1972, pp. 1107-12; MJA, 20 January 1973, p. 92; P. W. J. Bartrip, Beyond the factory gates: asbestos and health in twentieth century America, Continuum, London, 2006.

[28] Builders’ Labourers’ Federation Journal (BLFJ), May 1983, p. 23.

[29] Work Hazards, 15, June 1983, pp. 7-9; Australian Building and Construction Employees’ and Builders’ Labourers’ Federation Records, ACT Branch, Noel Butlin Archives Centre (NBAC), Z342 Boxes 1-8 and 15.

[30] BLFJ, May 1983, p. 23.

[31] BLFJ, November 1981, pp. 14-15.

[32] Advertiser, 17 September 1982 , p. 1; for Watkins’s continuing efforts, Unity, December 1985, p. 18.

[33] BLFJ, September 1982, p. 17.

[34] BLFJ, October 1983, pp. 13-15; Unity, July 1984, pp. 17-19; March-April 1985, pp. 14-19; August 1985, p. 13.

[35] Builder (SA), April 1986, p. 22.

[36] NSW Royal Commission into the Productivity of the Building Industry, NSW, Parliamentary Papers, 1992-3, volume XX1, Paper 272, p. 297.

[37] Work Hazards, May 1988, pp. 9-14.

[38] NSCA’s Australian Safety, November 2000, p. 51.

[39] NS, September 2007, p. 6, February 2008, pp. 27-29.

[40] Gideon Haigh, Asbestos House, James Hardie, Scribe, Melbourne, 2006, pp. 403-4.

[41] ABLF Queensland Branch Records, Minutes, 14 May 1929 , Fryer Library, University of Queensland , QUFL 166.

[42] Queensland Workers’ Compensation Reports, 1935-36, pp. 101-2.

[43] T. H. Kewley, Social Security in Australia, Social Security and Health Benefits from 1900 to the present, University of Sydney Press, Sydney, 1965, pp. 371-73; Claudia Thame, “Health and the State: The development of collective responsibility for Health Care in Australia in the First Half of the Twentieth Century”, Ph. D. Thesis, ANU, 1974, pp. 85-114; R. B. Walker, “The Struggle against Pulmonary Tuberculosis in Australia, 1788-1950”, Australian Historical Studies, 20 (80), April 1983, pp. 439-61.

[44] Report of the NSW Government Commission of Inquiry into Occupational Health and Safety, NSW Parliamentary Papers, 4th Session, 1981, p. 120.

[45] Clare Mayhew, M. Quinlan and L. Bennett, Effects of subcontracting/outsourcing on occupational health and safety, IRRC Studies in Australian Industrial Relations, No, 38, UNSW, Kensington, 1996, p. 124.

[46] P. Dingle and P. Tapsell, “Cabinet-makers: exposure to formaldehyde vapours”, JOHS ANZ, 15 (3), June 1999, pp. 249-52; NS, July 2008, pp. 32-36.

[47] NSW Builder’s Labourer, August-September 1962, p. 21.

[48] NSW Industrial Commission, Compulsory Conference, 25 March 1960 , Transcript, p. 3, MLK 04269.

[49] Queensland Executive, 30 October 1967 .

[50] Benelong Bugle (BB), August 1965, p. 4; Unity, December 1966, p. 12.

[51] Builder NSW, September 1983, p. 573; ABLF, Victorian Branch Records, Executive, 15 February 1927 , NBAC, ANU, Z398/24, and Special Branch Meeting, 28 March 1927 , NBAC, Z398/20.

[52] R. Nixon and K. Frowen, “Allergic contact dermatitis caused by epoxy resins”, JOH&S ANZ, 7 (5), October 1991, p. 412.

[53] Nixon and Frowen, “Allergic contact dermatitis”, 1991, p. 422.

[54] Chas. Rosenthal, Building and Engineering Journal, 7 September 1895 , p. 291.

[55] Victoria , Parliamentary Debates (PD), vol. 161, 4 October 1922 , p. 1667.

[56] Vivienne Ellis and Susanne Freeman, “Dermatitis due to Chromate in Cement”, Australasian Journal of Dermatology, 27 (2 & 3), August and December 1986, pp. 86-89 and 104-6.

[57] Queensland Minutes, 20 August 1940 ; cf. Victorian Executive, 8 January 1930 .

[58] “Nino Culotta”, They’re a Weird Mob, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1957, p. 81; Building and Transport and Timber Worker’s trades union Journal (BTTJ), December 1960, p. 32; Builder (SA), 19 September 1969, p. 37; N. Holmes, “Allergic contact dermatitis: preventive measures in the building and construction industry”, JOH&S ANZ, 7 (5), October 1991, pp. 409-16.

[59] Tasmanian Building Journal, June 1985, p. 6.

[60] NSW organisers’ diary, May 1972, MLK 04274.

[61] JOH&S ANZ, 16 (6), December 2000, p. 512.

[62] JOH&S ANZ, 3 (3), June 1987, pp. 287-91.

[63] J. Leigh and G. Morgan, “Hearing loss in the NSW coal-mining industry”, JOHS ANZ, 15 (5), October 1999, pp. 387-88.

[64] Mainline meeting, Sydney, 28 June 1973, MLK 04272; Sharann Johnson, “Helmet mounted hearing protection”, JOH&S, 2 (3), June 1986, p. 232; Henry Pollack, The Accidental Developer, The fascinating rise to the top of Mirvac founder Henry Pollack, ABC Books, Sydney, 2005, p. 294.

[65] NSW Builder’s Labourer, June 1973, p. 43.

[66] W. Williams, “Can hearing protectors provide satisfactory noise reduction?”, JOH&S ANZ, 22 (6), December 2006, p. 562.

[67] Johnson, “Helmet mounted hearing protection”, JOH&S ANZ, June 1986, pp. 232-3; National Acoustic Laboratories, Attenuation of Hearing Protection, Fifth Edition, AGPS, Canberra, 1987.

[68] “Interview”, JOH&S ANZ, 2 (3), June 1986, p. 234.

[69] “Interview”, JOH&S ANZ, 2 (3), June 1986, p. 235.

[70] Greg Foley, “Construction industry occupational health safety performance overview, Australia 1992-93”, JOH&S ANZ, 13 (1), February 1997, pp. 84 and 86.

[71] E. F. Hill, Industrial deafness, Current Problems in Law, v. 18, Leo Cussen Institute for Continuing Legal Education, Melbourne, 1982, p. 19.

[72] G. Bolton, A Fine Country to Starve In, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1972, p. 217.

[73] Queensland Executive, 9 and 16 July 1961.

[74] Douglas Gordon and H. Silverstone, “Patterns of Accident Morbidity in a Sub-Tropical City ”, MJA, 21 August 1965 , p. 317; a point confirmed by the NSW Government Commission of Inquiry into Occupational Health and Safety, NSW Parliamentary Papers, 4th Session, 1981, volume 1, pp. 186-92.

[75] Foley, “Construction industry occupational health safety performance overview”, JOH&S ANZ, February 1997, p. 85.

[76] NS, November 2007, p. 6.

[77] Quoted M. Donaldson, “Labouring Men: Love, Sex and Strife”, ANZ Journal of Sociology, 23 (2), July 1987, p. 174; see also Douglas Gordon et al., “Occupational Accidents in Queensland ”, MJA, 25 November 1961 , pp. 855-57; N. M. Hadler, “Industrial Rheumatism”, MJA, 144 (4), 17 February 1986 , pp. 191-95.

[78] Foley, “Construction industry …  overview”, JOH&S ANZ, February 1997, p. 85.

[79] F. J. Sharrod, “Characteristics of 1,074 cases of work-related low-back injury in a heavy construction industry”, JOH&S ANZ, 2 (2), April 1986, pp. 148-51; Greg Foley, Occupational health and safety in Australian workplaces: the high risk and high cost of serious body stressing incidents, Worksafe Australia, Canberra, 1996; Andrew Hopkins, “The Social Construction of Repetition Strain Injury”, ANZ Journal of Sociology, 25 (2), August 1989, pp. 239-59.

[80] Sharrod, “Characteristics of 1,074 cases”, JOH&S ANZ, April 1986, pp. 148-51.

[81] Victoria WorkCover Authority, Annual Report, 1999-2000, p. 7; cf. Leggat, JOH&S ANZ, 1998.

[82] Quoted Mayhew, Quinlan and Bennett, Effects of Subconracting, p. 124.

[83] Work Hazards, 26, April 1986, p. 2.

[84] Work Hazards, 33, August 1988, p. 12.

[85] Brisbane Courier, 21 April 1927 , p. 15a-b.

[86] 7 Commonwealth Arbitration Reports (CAR) (1913) 210 at 218-20; the Commission refused to allow double time for working in the wet to protect half-finished work, 15 CAR (1921) 108 at 115.

[87] Peter Lalor, The Bridge, Allen & Unwin, Sydney , 2005, p. 198.

[88] Stuart Macintyre, Militant, The Life and Times of Paddy Troy , George Allen & Unwin Australia , North Sydney , 1984, p. 56.

[89] The General, authorised biography of Norm Gallagher, p. 13 of second chapter in an unpublished 1989 typescript.

[90] Builders’ Laborers’ Journal (NSW), November-December 1957, pp. 2 and 3.

[91] John Stubbs, The Hidden People, Poverty in Australia , Cheshire-Lansdowne, Melbourne , 1966, p. 62.

[92] NSW Builder’s Labourer, April 1973, p. 19; NSW Royal Commission, NSW, Parliamentary Papers, 1992-3, volume XX, Paper 267, Appendix F, pp. 166-202.

[93] NSW Builder’s Laborer, June-July 1964, p. 17; Builders’ Laborer’s Journal, July 1957, p. 4; November-December 1957, p. 3.

[94] NSW Builder’s Laborer, May 1959, p. 4.

[95] 101 CAR (1962) 318 at 330 and 344-5.

[96] W. R. H. Keast, Building Victoria : A History of the Master Builders’ Association of Victoria, MBAV, Melbourne , 1994, p. 310.

[97]Journal of the Building, Transport and Timber Workers’ trades (JBTT), November 1958, p. 10.

[98] Builders’ Laborers’ Journal, May 1952, p. 4; JBTT, December 1959, p. 1; BLFJ, November 1980, pp. 7, & 19, May 1981, p. 7; Tasmanian Building Journal, August 1980, p. 15.

[99] BLFJ, November 1981, p. 10, July 1982, p.p. 10-11, and September 1982, p. 21.

[100] Federal Leaflet No. 5, in possession of author; Tasmanian Building Journal, December 1984, p. 8.

[101] Fergus Robinson, Study of occupational health and safety practice in the construction of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, NOH&S Commission, Sydney , 2000, pp. 36-37; Siobhan McHugh, The Snowy: the people behind the power, A&R, Sydney , 1995, pp. 234-5.

[102] Work Hazards, November 1987, p. 6; R. Dircks et al., “Skin cancer in the workplace”, JOH&S ANZ, 3 (1), February 1987, pp. 53-60: JOH&S ANZ, August 1988, pp. 10-11; JOH&S ANZ, 15 (3), June 1999, pp. 267-72, and S. Dobinson and K. Knight, “Protecting workers from ultraviolet radiation in sunlight”, JOH&S ANZ, 16 (6), December 2000, pp. 587-9; Builders’ Labourer, December 1991, pp. 16-17.

[103] Benelong Bugle, December 1966, pp. 8-9.

[104] Letter from Harry Karslake, 24 September 2006.

[105] Age, 10 July 1994 , p. 3g; Keast, Building Victoria, pp. 276 and 330.

[106] BLFJ, May 1983, pp. 12 and 22; Brian Boyd, Inside the BLF, Ocean Books, Melbourne, 1991, p. 92-93; Victorian Minutes, 8 March 1983, pp. 4-5; Executive, 16 March 1983, pp. 1-2; General, 14 April 1983, p. 3; Executive, 13 April 1983, p. 1, and 4 May 1983, p. 2; General, 10 May 1983, p. 2, and 8 June 1983, p. 3.

[107] Age, 6 April 1984, p. 17; J. L. Simonds, “The Occupational Health and Safety Bill 1983 (Vic.)”, and Jennifer Doran, “Implementing the Victorian Government’s Policy on Ocupational Health and Safety 1982-1984”, Creighton and Gunnington, The Industrial Relations of Occupational Health and Safety, pp. 124-66.

[108] Age, 6 April 1984, p. 6; Unity, March-April 1985, p. 13; Boyd was too modest to mention this incident in his reminiscences, “Outside the BLF.

[109] Victoria, Legislative Council, PD, v. 378, 18 July 1985, pp. 993 and 1004.

[110] Age, 26 February 1988, p. 13; “Editorial”, Herald, 23 February 1988.

[111] Herald, 6 March 1989, pp. 1 & 4; John Cain, John Cain’s Years: power. parties and politics, MUP, Carlton, 1995, pp. 118-26; Mick Considine and Brian Costar, Trials in power, Cain, Kirner and Victoria, 1982-1992, MUP, Carlton, 1992, pp. 59-72.

[112] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 3, Lawrence & Wishart, London , 1975, p. 175. 

[113] For first-hand accounts from alcoholic members, see Dare to Struggle, December 1981, p. 16, and Paddy Donnelly, The hammer and the heart, Pease Publications, Carlton , 2002, p. 34; cf. Tom and Audrey McDonald, Intimate Union, Pluto Press, Sydney , 1998, pp. 51, 57, 59, 93, 98, 125 and 204.

[114] Builders’ Labourers’ News, 24 December 1915 , p. 3.

[115] NSCA’s Australian Safety, November 2000, pp. 24-25; telephone interview with Trevor Sharp, 19 June 2008 .

[116] National Safety, November 2005, pp. 14-27; JOHS ANZ, 23 (6), December 2007, pp. 504-5;

[117] Ruth Hubbard and Elijah Wald, Exploding the Gene Myth, Beacon, Boston , 1993, pp. 6 and 17.

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