My Story of British Uralite
Life Working in an Asbestos Product Company
During the very early 60s While searching for something different to the Shipyard I did approx. a six-month Employment with British Uralite.
It was a company that produced Products in Asbestos.
They produced Giant water pipes, smaller pipes , guttering ,down pipes. Cowlings for engine covers. 6 x 4 Sheets ,and large corrugated sheets for roofing.
At that time and still in ignorance of its dangers I began in what was called the Window box section. It was a new venture for them and had been running several months before I joined them. I became part of a team of 4 men. It was a shift work pattern. Alternating week and week about. Shift pattern was 6am till 2pm and 2pm to 10 pm.
Something I had not encountered before. The other 3 guys on my team were all friendly and I soon became firm friends with Len. He was around 6 feet and me being a short ass he took me under his wing. We met socially and got on like a house on fire. Unfortunately, at aged 31 He passed on with Cancer.
So the area allocated to us was in a corner of the main factory and contained 2 large tables for chopping and a small bench for each of us. The large table was about 12 feet long and about 4 feet wide. The rest of the floor was divided into various sections and was manned by men and women each manufacturing different items. Although we were in close proximity there was little interaction. As I recall it. The floor was concrete and was white. The whole area was basically white. It was not paint. it was ASBESTOS dust. This dust was prevalent everywhere that you looked, on the benches, walls and floors all white and heavily coated dust.
My section produced window boxes destined for the balcony of high-rise flats. There were 3 size . 4 feet 3 feet and 2 feet in length. The section was given its quota which you were expected to meet in order to get the bonus.
As it was easier to produce the 2 feet boxes it was a clamor to do theses if you can.
A day’s work would run along these lines. It’s a bit awkward to be precise here because it was a continuous system. But initially you were allocated a mould so for example being the new boy I got the 2 foot mould. To prepare the mould it would first be coated internally with a release agent. Which was mixed in a bucket and looked like custard. My first attempts were supervised by Len. It was important to ensure that the whole inside was coated to prevent disasters later. In order to begin manufacturing would require working in pairs and a walk to another part of the factory carrying a very large rolling pin where the giant hopper was. This hopper was where the liquefied Asbestos was made. You would tell the guy running this hopper what size sheet you needed and he would produce it for you. You could watch your wet sheet of Asbestos about 12 feet by 4 feet and about half an inch thick. (365x125.10 cm). being rolled out on a long table.
Next you and your partner would get each side of the giant table and roll wet sheet onto your rolling pin. And amidst grunting and stumbling carry this heavy burden back to your part of the factory, where it would be unrolled onto your long bench.
Now the fun begins depending on your mould size you would mark out crudely your requirements. To do this you would need one of the few tools provided. In this case the tool was a wide blade chisel like chopper using a heavy-handed chopping motion you would hack out your piece, you will need one piece that would drop inside your mould covering the bottom and front and back, next you need two end pieces. And 4 corner fillets.
The actual process from here was pretty basic and brutal. The next tool required to this was an iron bar bent into a simple z shape IE a long flat blade and a handle. Using this tool required beating the whole surface of the wet Asbestos ensuring it was now pressed into the various moulded decorative patterns on the front and well into to corners. Nest the corner fillets to be mashed as well. All this beating and smashing completed it all requires wetting and smoothing to a nice finish. Finally, to ensure you get your bonus you stamp inside with a personal stamp. This heavy mould now requires storing overnight in the rack to dry. The days target would be to make 6 of these.
Now that’s day one over.
Day two begins by gong to the giant floor to ceiling rack and finding that which you made yesterday in day one with help it would be lifted and placed on your bench.
Because it is still soft you need to take care, it all needs trimming back. So, with a hacksaw blade you would gently cut off the excess all round so you are left with a box that is close to your mould size. Now it needs to go back in the rack for further drying time.
Now the process starts again which ever size you have been given to produce the procedure is exactly the same. At the end of the day it also goes in the rack.
Day 3 involves getting day ones work off the rack again. checking to see that it has dried sufficiently it is time to unbolt the mould and very very carefully hope the release agent you put on was enough. Because the actual box at this point resembles a slightly soggy cardboard box and requires delicate handling. Which now will go back on the rack.
The empty mould will need to be cleaned and bolted back together and coated in release agent to start over.
Now you will repeat this process on the day 2 boxes. After which you can continue to produce 6 more in your empty moulds.
Day 4. You will find your day one boxes which you removed from the moulds yesterday.
They should be dry enough now to be ready for finishing. This requires checking all areas for shrinkage and cracks which will have to be filled with wet Asbestos and once more left overnight. If no shrinkage or cracks are found its time to get your rasp out and file
all the rough edges after your hacksaw treatment yesterday. With this rasping done and satisfied that all surfaces are as should be, the final touch is to sand paper all surfaces and then to sprinkle French chalk and rub it all over the outsides ready for going to stores.
And so the process continues
That sums up a typical day’s work from when I started. But things were about to change.
The management decided to introduce a time and motion system in our section so our initial 6 boxes were increased to 9 per day. After several weeks this time and motion system was to invade our section again and now our targets were increased to 12. Now not only was this target far too ambitious. It created problems for the store men. They would come around each day and remove what had been produced. Their problem was now they were responsible for removing double the load. We think they had a meeting and discussed how they could get around this increase in work load. The system was for us that our completed products were stood on end in a corner of our section awaiting collection. This was fine when we only made six each but now the area was no longer adequate. And some fell over as people brushed pass. Any that fell over and chipped were not paid for and were sent to the dump for scrap.
Now the store men were well aware of this and we think that this was the solution they reached to diminish their load. We became painfully aware that when they came with their trolley they would knock into them and break them and stack them tightly on the trolley where they would fall off. Now this damage became a regular thing. We were working flat out to reach our target but we were no longer paid because we didn’t get paid for any that didn’t reach the stores in saleable condition. Each week the damage figure was increasing. During tea break one day a heated discussion took place. It was decided that it could not continue. The area in the corner of the factory that was initially just about adequate was now obviously no longer big enough to accommodate our work.
It was decided that Management need to be made aware of this situation.
It was decided that from the start of the next shift we would no longer work in the current area allocated to our section. We were not refusing to work but we refused to work in that area. We proposed 2 other areas in the factory that were currently empty and would be suitable for our expanding department.
Now I am not sure how but I was elected spokesperson. It fell on to me to go up to the managers and advise them of our decision. It was not well received. I was shouted at and told I was a troublemaker. But next day we refused to work there. The union refused to back us and tried to persuade us to rethink. Each of us in our section were given menial tasks designed to break our spirit. This situation continues for a week before an offer of a new location was offered. This was over the top of the furnace that produce the hot tar for another product. I can’t remember what the temperature was but it was hotter in there at 6am when the fires had been off all night than it was on the hottest day in summer time. It was my job to say sorry it’s not suitable. We had a meeting of our own and decided that if it’s the best they could offer then we would all give notice. A few days later we were offered an alternative on the top floor . Now this would involve carrying our heavy rolls of wet Asbestos up 2 flights of stairs. A Most unsuitable arrangement. We were invited to meet management in this area and asked for our opinions. We had amongst ourselves agreed that it was not suitable. Management asked the first of our team did he accept the offer, he said yes!
The second one said Ok! The 3rd one said he was happy to try it.
I was disgusted at these 3 guys. When it came to me I was asked had I got anything to say. The tone in which it was asked was obvious menacing. Now I had made it my thing not to be intimidated by bullying from anyone. So, my response to his question was. Yes! I will have my cards and washers . His response was Fine you can go to wages now where your wages are waiting. With that he turned to the others and said Ok you can move your stuff up here and start work. None of them could look me in the eye. I turned, made my way to wages picked up my dues and left.
Looking Back with hindsight the level of Asbestos contamination and lack of proper Asbestos management and protection for its workers being nonexistent, this company should never have existed. Its workforce was unwittingly placed in a life-threatening situation.
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