On November 11 and 12 2012, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation will broadcast “Devil’s Dust”, a two-part movie about asbestos in Australia. This is not a documentary on asbestos-related diseases. It follows the story of investigative journalist Matt Peacock from the 1970s to the present day in parallel with the corporate machinations of James Hardie Industries and its former CEO, John Reid and the life, times and death of Bernie Banton.
To many Australians, bits and pieces of each of these narrative streams will be familiar but Devil’s Dust illustrates the moral linkages between these streams leading to a powerful story of corporate greed, strength of character and man’s inhumanity to man. The workplace safety context of Devil’s Dust is obvious – ignoring or hiding information about harm to workers, the management of many workplace risks through allowances and “danger money”.
The television production values depict the times perfectly and for those who know of the asbestos risks, particularly readers of Matt Peacock’s book “Killer Company” which inspired the movie, the opening few seconds summarise major issues in the asbestos story – sacks of asbestos on a truck, cigarette smoking and dust being bashed from work clothes. Later in the first part, other issues are touched on – the washing of asbestos-contaminated work clothes by wives, asbestos in trains, asbestos in carpet underlay and asbestos used as road toppings.
The story of Bernie Banton‘s actions against the James Hardie corporation feature in the second part but the life experiences that fired his determination are shown in part one. His reaction as each of his workmates, as well as his close family, start to die from asbestosis and mesothelioma, is telling but the most heartbreaking moment in part one is Matt Peacock’s visit to the Barylugil asbestos mine. This mine was a major source of employment for the local indigenous people. It is difficult to watch as the faces of the local children playing in a dusty playground turn to the camera and the viewer. The significance of the mine and the heartlessness of James Hardie Industries is confirmed when Matt Peacock returns over a decade later to see the community gone and only despair left.
The actions of Bernie Banton and the court action against James Hardie Industries and the Medical Research and Compensation Foundation occurred within the last decade. Many of the corporate executives and politicians depicted in the movie remain in the public eye. The New South Wales Premier of the time, Bob Carr, who the movie says had a change of heart on asbestos-related compensation after hearing talkback radio conversations, is currently Australia’s Foreign Minister. Carr is later seen meeting asbestos sufferers and seeing the humanity behind the politics. The movie includes a meeting between James Hardie’s Meredith Hellicar and then-Premier Bob Carr that succinctly shows a close relationship between business and politics.
Since the James Hardie asbestos issues depicted in the movie asbestos has never had a higher profile in Australia. Australia has an Asbestos Management Review. There is a campaign for an Asbestos Free Tasmania and Tasmania introduced an asbestos levy. Similar actions have occurred in other Australian States with the establishment of asbestos registers and other related initiatives. Even a major asbestos exporter, Canada, is reexamining its activities.
Devil’s Dust is a terrific and concise history of parts of Australia’s asbestos saga over the last thirty years and provides an important lesson to the workplace safety profession, public health advocates, corporate regulators and public policy makers.