It Was Industry Policy Not to Warn Workers

The policy of the asbestos industry to keep workers in the dark about the dangers of asbestos dust is graphically illustrated in an August 29, 1933 memo from the files of Johns-Manville, one of the largest and most powerful asbestos manufacturers in the United States. The memo contains “Questions and Answers” from one of Johns-Manville’s plant physician to medical consultant Anthony Lanza, M.D.

These verbatim “Questions and Answers” make it clear that it was Johns-Manville’s policy not to tell workers of the dangers of asbestos dust.

Decision Not To Warn Workers

In the memo, the plant physician who actually treated Johns-Manville’s employees demonstrated that he was concerned about their health and safety. He explained that he believed that the workers should definitely be warned about the hazards of asbestos. However, the company’s “medical consultant” Dr. Lanza rejected these recommendations, and recommended against doing anything to protect the health of the Johns-Manville employees:

Question No. 2 From the Johns-Manville plant physician:

Do you agree with my recommendation that employees definitely be made aware of the fact that asbestos dust is hazardous to their health? … Your comments on this please and particularly is there any additional advice that should be given?

Answer By Dr. Lanza:

…I doubt if the hazard is sufficient to justify warning posters as might be used where lead, benzol or carbon monoxide are concerned. This is especially true in view of the extraordinary legal situation…

Disregard For Employee’s Health

Likewise, when an employee was diagnosed with asbestosis, the plant physician wanted to remove the man from the asbestos dust and put him in safer working conditions. However, the company’s “medical consultant” Dr. Lanza rejected this recommendation too. Rather than showing any concern for the worker with asbestosis, Dr. Lanza stated that if the worker was “well along in years,” he should just be left alone to work in a cloud of toxic asbestos dust in the interest of “economic as well as production factors.”

Question No. 5 By Johns-Manville plant physician:

I have made a diagnosis of asbestosis on an employee who has been working in the card room of the textile department six years. This place is extremely dusty. He is not disabled. In my judgment the best disposition of such a case is to remove him from the dust and give him a job in some other part of the plant. From your remarks in Chicago I believe this was your advice as to the disposition of such cases.

Answer By Dr. Lanza:

It is difficult to answer this question. I think it would depend upon the man’s age, the nature of his work, his length of service, and other considerations which might have some bearing. If he is well along in years and shows no disability, it may be just as well to leave him alone. One of the difficulties and vexations in trying to deal with the problems of pneumoconiosis is that economic as well as production factors must be balanced against the medical factors.

In essence, Johns-Manville was protecting its bottom line. The company wanted to make sure that its employees would keep working in the middle of the asbestos dust without demanding any costly protective equipment, and would not file any workers’ compensation claims if they did become ill from the asbestos dust.

Economic Factors Outweigh Health Concerns

As Dr. Lanza’s final comments in this memo graphically spell out, the “economic factors” won out over the health and safety of Johns-Manville’s workers. The company made a conscious decision not to warn its workers about the known hazards of asbestos dust:

The Johns-Manville plant physician made the following “Recommendations… Following Examination of Employees in Textile Department:

Employees in the textile department should tactfully but definitely be made aware of the fact that work in asbestos dust is hazardous to their health…

Dr. Lanza’s comment reflects the company’s disregard of the employees’ health:

I think this is out, at least for the present…