The James Hardie company perhaps best exemplifies the rampant corporate greed characteristic the Australian asbestos industry during the 20th century. Hardie’s record of profiteering certainly doesn’t stand alone either. Other companies such as the US-based Johns-Mansville and the UK-based Turner Newall have equally long and disturbing histories of safety, health, and human rights violations. What is perhaps most disturbing about James Hardie is that the company was allowed to continue its disturbing practices long after the dangers of asbestos became known to the public.
James Hardie first entered the Australian business world as a Scottish immigrant in 1887, when he set up shop as an importer of trade supplies. When his health forced him to leave Australia in 1903, he discovered a building material in France called “fibro-cement,” which was made in part with asbestos. The material’s resistance to fire and insects quickly made it a success in Australia, and soon JH & Co. become the sole importer of fibro-cement in the country and surrounding territories. The material was successful, but it was only one aspect of the business at the time and not its most profitable one.
1910s – 1930s
At the onset of World War I, the industrial need and application of asbestos materials dramatically increased. As a result James Hardie Industries went from simple importer of French asbestos materials to an outright manufacturer. The Fibrolite product line was introduced in 1917, and right about this time the company became formally known as James Hardie Asbestos Industries. However, despite reports elsewhere of the potential hazards of asbestos, the executives at JHAI—now led by Andrew Reid—either were ignorant of these reports or chose to ignore them.
JHAI expanded quickly in the 1920s, opening new production plants in 1920 and 1921, and introducing a new product called Super-Six corrugated sheet in 1926. Another plant opened that same year, along with more plants in 1934 and 1938. By the late 30s, the dangers of asbestos were becoming increasingly well documented. In 1939, workers afflicted with respiratory diseases as a result of working in mines and production plants successfully sued JHAI for damages. Despite this, business continued as normal.
In 1944, JHAI entered in a partnership at the Wunderlich, Ltd., which ran a mine in Baryulgil, located in remote Aboriginal territory. By 1953, JHAI had purchased the mine outright. Conditions in the mine were dismal, as workers toiled away in visible clouds of lethal asbestos dust. Further, the company made a practice of dumping waste in the local mining community, ensuring that not only workers were exposed to toxic amounts of airborne asbestos fibers, but their families as well. Despite numerous warnings from health inspectors and the fact that the mine was never a profitable operation for JHAI, these practices continued unabated until 1976, when the company finally sold it.
JHAI and Health
Although documents show that JHAI was aware of the inherent health risks of asbestos exposure since as early as 1957 (or even earlier, as a result of the 1939 lawsuit), the company did not begin educating its managers about public health concerns until 1971. However, even this move towards education did not slow the company’s production. By the early 70s, JHAI accounted for 70 percent of the asbestos products in Australia, which included residential sheeting, sprays for walls and ceilings, and insulation for pipes. Despite their awareness of the health issue, nothing in the company’s practices indicated a concern for public safety and wellbeing.
The End of Asbestos at JHAI
By the 1980s, Parliament finally took up the matter of JHAI’s appalling practices at the Baryulgil mine. By this time, many of the workers had already died from exposure-related illnesses. If nothing else, the public was finally given the opportunity to learn about the atrocities at Baryulgil.
By 1987 the company changed its name to simply James Hardie and began a massive PR campaign to make the public forget about the company’s history of unethical practices. By the 1990s the company had effectively moved on from asbestos, but only after the Australian death toll for asbestos-related illnesses nearly matched the Australian death toll from World War II.
Since then, the company has fought and lost countless legal battles as more and more sick workers have come forward. Most recently, the company was found to have drastically underfunded a foundation supposedly set up to benefit sick workers. Despite its well documented record of negligence, the company continues to operate today.