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Perceptions of health hazards in the narratives of Italian migrant workers at an Australian asbestos mine (1943-1966)


  • Cappelletto, Francesca
  • Merler, Enzo


This article reconstructs how workers perceived asbestos hazards, using narratives from a group of migrant workers at the crocidolite mine of Wittenoom Gorge, Western Australia. The mine employed about 7000 workers over the entire period of its operation from 1943 to 1966--relying heavily on migrant workers. The exposure to asbestos dust caused a huge number of occupational respiratory diseases in workers, leading Wittenoom later to be labelled as a modern industrial disaster. Fieldwork involved 137 interviews with Italians who had worked at Wittenoom. They constituted 18% of the mine's work-force and were employed as miners or millers between 1951 and 1966. We interviewed workers who had returned to Italy, relatives of Italian workers now deceased, and workers who had settled in Australia. The results confirm the seriousness of the occupational exposure to asbestos and the weaknesses of the health surveillance program. Although workers were given no health-related information, they felt they were at risk and left the job as soon as possible. From the early 1950s onward, some of the workers became aware of a long-term connection between work at Wittenoom and lung illnesses that required hospitalisation and caused deaths. However, up to the early 1960s, workers at the mine were led to believe that the respiratory disease spreading among them was tuberculosis.

Suggested Citation

  • Cappelletto, Francesca & Merler, Enzo, 2003. "Perceptions of health hazards in the narratives of Italian migrant workers at an Australian asbestos mine (1943-1966)," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 56(5), pages 1047-1059, March.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:56:y:2003:i:5:p:1047-1059

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