A dangerous job

Pay someone enough money and they will do anything you ask, even when they know that its likely to kill them.

When asbestos was used in the building industry in the 1950s and 60s it was thought to be a safe and very versatile material offering excellent insulation and fire protection qualities. Used in sheet form to board walls or mixed in fibre form with other compounds such as cement to coat pipework, or simply laid loose in cavities as insulation it was cheap, easy to work with and very effective.

The health hazards of inhaling asbestos fibres had been apparent for 100 or so years before its use in construction work was finally banned in the 1980s, and today it remains a huge problem when disposing of the material on demolition sites or when making structural alterations to buildings, if asbestos is discovered during work then the area must be sealed off and its removal and disposal can only be carried out by specially licensed operators using sealed protection and air filtered suits in a completely sealed environment – its an expensive business.

None of which seemed to have reached the ears of the small team of pipe laggers who stayed at the same boarding house as me in Whitley Bay during  the period 78-79.

A small band of four or five hard grafters from Nottinghamshire they moved around the country stripping off asbestos cladding from pipework in power stations and replacing it with a modern, safe alternative – I don’t believe that this work is done these days as its extremely hazardous, extremely expensive and the asbestos is considered safer left undisturbed in-situ then when disturbed using a hammer and chisel.

These men literally chiselled off the asbestos cement, inch by inch, there was no other way to do it, the cement had originally been sprayed onto every inch of visible pipework and standing on a ladder with a hammer and chisel chipping away at it was the only way to get rid.

Health and Safety didn’t seem to have been the all conquering force that it now is on building sites back in the 70s for these hardy lads simply donned jeans and a t-shirt to commence their days work, they disregarded the cotton face masks that their employers provided as “protection” as they were too hot to work with and they’d often return to our boarding house digs covered from head to foot in white dust.

They knew it was dangerous, sat at the table for our evening meal of rat pie they’d tell tales of former work colleagues who were now dead from cancer or at the least only breathing with the aid of an oxygen tank, these people that they spoke of only being in their forties and yet considered ancient old men in the world of asbestos working – the young lads in our digs were in their twenties as I was, they knew that their job would more than likely lead to their early demise, they knew that they were breathing in one of the most carcinogenic substances known to mankind, and yet they still did the job…

…for money, lots of it.

My wage as a surveyor at that time was around the average of £90 or so per week, our qualified electricians were on £5.40 an hour and could earn £250 in a good week, or nothing during a lay-off, but the laggers from Nottingham regularly showed me wage slips of five and six hundred pounds per week, a small fortune in those days, one of them in his late 20s would speak of his small terraced house back in his Nottinghamshire village that he had paid for in cash owned outright without a mortgage, his wife and young child would have no such incumbrance when he died, as he knew he would.

And yes, they all knew that they would all eventually succumb to lung disease, when I used to go out with them on our pool-playing nights in Matties Bar down the bottom of the street they would speak of the short term nature of their work, all of them admitted being attracted by the high salaries, the ongoing long term nature of the work (every power station in the country was planned to be stripped) and they had all joined the company with the intention of earning their fortune very quickly and then leaving a couple of year later before the cancer got to them, but of course that never happened, they were earning £500 a week and spending £500 a week, I saw it with some of our electricians too when the North Sea Oil industry boomed in the North East and Scotland and similar huge salaries could be earned by electricians who would spend several months aboard an oil rig, they’d go “just for a short while” and then find that they couldn’t afford to leave.

It was after one bank holiday weekend that I returned to our boarding house to find one of their number not returned and the remaining four lads very subdued, the missing one, the older member of the team, had been routinely x-rayed by his GP as part of an annual health check-up and found to have a shadow on his lung, he hadn’t yet been diagnosed with lung cancer but they all knew he had it. The youngest one on the team, a blond curly mop-haired lad of the same age as me was terrified and confided in me in Matties Bar that he was leaving to get a job in a coal mine (talk about out of the frying pan into the fire), but a month later when they all moved on to another region of the country he went with them.

They will all be dead now, no doubt about that at all, they should be in their fifties with children and possibly grandchildren, talking of their days in the construction industry, but they will undoubtably all be dead now.


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