Asbestos has been recognized as a dangerous substance for literally centuries. Even the ancient Roman historian Pliny the Elder noted that slaves who toiled at asbestos jobsites and in the asbestos mines of old suffered from severe respiratory problems and died at a very early age.
As the years went on and the use of asbestos became more and more commonplace, especially after the Industrial Revolution, doctors and scientists continued to recognize the dangers of working on a daily basis with this toxic mineral, and by the late 19th century, they had made a definite connection between asbestos and pulmonary diseases.
By the early decades of the 20th century, doctors had coined the term "asbestosis" to refer to most asbestos cancers, and these same doctors were warning factory and mine owners that they were putting their employees at risk by allowing them to work with asbestos without benefit of any protective gear which may have halted inhalation of dangerous fibers. But the warnings went unheeded.
As early as the 1930s, executives at companies where asbestos was used daily were already covering up the fact that employees were being sickened and dying from asbestos-related diseases. They hid or destroyed memos about the dangers of asbestos, ignored doctor's reports, and quietly offered compensation to individuals affected by their daily work with the hazardous mineral, making them promise never to tell their co-workers about their disease.
Before long, labor and trade unions would step in and make asbestos one of their prime concerns, and a number of labor unions around the country would eventually assist in exposing the cover-ups that were so rampant in American industry. Though in many cases it took decades for unions to help achieve safer working conditions and fair compensation for those affected by asbestos-related diseases, union representatives and members were integral in making strides in a positive direction and in making their brothers worldwide understand the dangers of asbestos.
Early labor unions like the AFL and CIO (once two separate entities) and other later-formed unions such as the United Steel Workers and United Auto Workers made it their duty to inform their members of the hazards they faced when their jobs involved working with asbestos. They exposed secret memos from company officials and hired doctors to attest to the fact that asbestos exposure was one of the main causes of mesothelioma. Verifying what most factory owners and managers already knew but refused to reveal.
Unions encouraged workers to refuse to work in hazardous conditions with such high risk factors and were the impetus for huge changes in the asbestos industry. When no one else would take up the cause, labor unions did so.
With the power to reach tens of thousands of workers, unions throughout the world continue to fight for the rights of sufferers of asbestos-related diseases, especially in countries like Australia and the United Kingdom, where the mesothelioma rate is high but compensation is low. Though it may take several more years for these countries and others to admit that asbestos diseases are a serious concern, the unions will continue to help their members deal with the challenges of asbestos exposure.