The Portland potroom asthma victims

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Former rural employment counsellor Don Wilson recounts the case of the "potroom asthma" victims at the Portland aluminium smelter in Victoria in 1988.

Portland Aluminium Smelter
Portland Aluminium Smelter

I HAD BEEN employment counsellor for South West Victoria for less than a year when I was given this case. The background needs explaining.

The construction of an aluminium smelter at Portland and then the production and the export of aluminium had transformed Portland from a small port town to a rapidly growing regional city. The Portland CES had played, and continued to play, a key role in the recruitment and screening of job applicants. The spectacular growth in recruiting and placement led to the CES itself growing in staff size and importance.

Recruiting was Statewide and later extended nation-wide. Among those first recruited were local applicants. That was logical, since it avoided other problems with housing, and it developed good community relations. Plus, it allowed the employer some stability, since local staff would not be looking to move on.

Portland Aluminium Smelters (a subsidiary of Alcoa) had quite specific requirements of recruits. In addition to an aptitude test, a comprehensive medical (especially to ensure there were no respiratory problems), job history and police check, recruits needed to complete a psychological test. The aim of this latter was to weed out potential troublemakers.

The preferred type of attitude could be summed up as “head down, bum up”.

Recruiting remained fairly constant. In addition to a steady turnover of staff over time (the nature of shift work and its demands took their toll on employees), an additional kiln was constructed, requiring more employees.

After a few years, several employees were becoming incapacitated through contracting chronic asthma. Only a limited information was publicly known at that time, but it has become clear since that the exhaust fumes from the process were toxic. Amongst other things, fluorocarbons were released. These likely triggered the asthma outbreaks.

The complaint gained a nickname of ‘potroom asthma because those affected had worked in that location. It was an unfortunate choice of name, given that those contracting it had no choice but to go off work onto workers compensation.

In the public mind, it was thought to be a ‘fad’ complaint, simply to go off onto compensation.

Other ‘fad’ compensation complaints had occurred not much earlier — notably repetitive strain injury (RSI), which later was referred to more accurately as tendonitis. In the public service there had been many RSI claims. I have no doubt that those I knew were genuine in their belief about the cause of pain they were experiencing. But having witnessed many people working high-volume industrial machines at great speed at some risk to their bodies, I had some doubts that those in clerical positions were exposed to anything like the same muscular risks. The one major positive was that ergonomics became a much bigger factor in occupational health and safety.

The number of potroom asthma victims seemed to grow, causing some uneasiness. It was divisive within the community. Parallel with this, a major reforming workers compensation system called Workcare had been introduced by the Cain Government. In addition to taking it out of the courts and private insurers by establishing a single claiming body with emphasis on support for victims and rehabilitation, the income and medical support was compassionate and generous. The very generosity led to many suspecting that it was being rorted.

Potroom asthma, with so little known about it, fed into those concerns. The employer did, in fact, attempt to redeploy the victims in other parts of the smelter away from the fumes, as was required by the Workcare rehabilitation conditions. However, it was found that just being on the smelter premises was enough to trigger asthma attacks. Just trace elements of the fumes had that impact.

The victims all had a stable work history. In Portland that usually meant working for Borthwicks Meat Works or something like Pivot Phosphate or the timber mills. The problem was that although the asthma was triggered by the potroom fumes, the condition was not exclusive to them. They simply became regular asthmatics. Industries such as the Borthwicks freezing rooms, phosphate and chemical fertiliser production, or saw-milling were incompatible with an asthma condition. The men thus found themselves unable to work in their chosen occupation and unable to return to their earlier ones. So they continued on benefits to their dismay as much as anyone else’s.

Portland smelter

The men were unhappy with Portland Smelter, who they believed didn’t want to know them; with Workcare who seemed unable to provide a solution; and even with the CES, which had recruited them in the first place. In addition, they had a proud work history and greatly resented the public perception that potroom asthma was a joke complaint and a bit of a bludge.

At the time I was called in, there were three (possibly four, but I lack the case notes to be accurate) people on Workcare. The Portland CES Manager asked me to take the case on because he felt the CES was partly responsible, having actively recruited these men in the first place. Additional factors were that Workcare did not have any rehabilitation counsellors available in the region, having been established primarily for the Melbourne and Geelong areas, which contained most industry sources.

I got an excellent briefing from Portland CES staff about the case. In addition to the extensive local knowledge of the people, one staff member was the wife of a victim. I was happy to accept the case, seeing it as a major challenge. Staff were particularly concerned about the morale of the victims. They believed the victims to be genuine workers who were very angry about their plight.

I arranged the first meeting as a group one, having been impressed by the potential of group dynamics in some education studies I’d done. I believed that they shared a common experience and such a meeting may help to get them talking freely. On that I was right, except that the overwhelming emotion was anger.

They were very unhappy at the way their reputation, previously a proud one, had suffered because of their plight. They felt abandoned by their employer and their former workmates. Nobody in authority seemed interested or able to help. And they found themselves unwelcome at their former places of employment because of their condition.

I held the meeting in the Work Information Centre (WIC) at Portland CES. Each CES had a WIC, which was essentially a library of labour market information — a major resource for anyone on career and study options and job requirements and demands. In addition to privacy, separated from other CES functions, it seemed the ideal venue to help them consider new employment options.

It became clear that I would not be able to discuss vocational options until all the emotional issues were addressed and they could look at the present and the future. I had only recently completed some in-service training in Psychological Group Training, and believed that this was a primary example of where it could be applied.

Of course, it was a daunting challenge I was setting myself, but I felt confident — even without tertiary credentials. I had two years of Psychology in my degree. That included Cognitive Psychology and Social Psychology, both relevant to their needs. In addition, I’d gained a distinction in the Psychology of Adult Learning in a Graduate Diploma in Tertiary Education.

I was unsure how long it would take before I could move to vocational preparation and placement. So I arranged my schedule to allow for at least three more group sessions.

One positive from the initial session was that they each understood more of the others’ position. They were going through some of the same issues and anguish. Suddenly they realized they were not alone, a factor that had dominated some of their gloom.

The second session dealt mostly with anger issues and the impact on them and their families. I was encouraged that they had developed a bonhomie towards each other and some respect for me. The anger itself was not the primary concern. In fact, I have found out that often real progress can be made with anger because it means people are prepared to fight for what they want. The aim was to work through all of their concerns so that they could accept that change had occurred and the threats posed could be met.

By the third session we were able to move firmly into the present. I was encouraged by the way the men looked forward to these sessions. It seemed a very positive feeling. I explained in full the nature of the WIC and its value in researching vocational options. I reinforced the value of the skills and experience gained at the smelter.

Most had tickets for forklift, cranes and other machinery. These could be transferred to other industries and occupations. In addition, many had become semi-skilled in some electrolytic and engineering work. That raised some exciting possibilities for becoming trade-qualified. As a qualified tradesman you would have skills in demand, even if some industries were restricted because of the asthma.

Finally I was able to address the real value of Workcare in aiding their recovery. It went much further than access to all medical assistance and guaranteed income support. Workcare had a support system which, even when redeployed, topped up their wage to what they were previously earning for up to four years. That is, suppose you found a job paying $300 per week, and your wage before compensation had been $400. Workcare would pay the bridging $100 per week.

The importance of this provision was that it opened the possibility of gaining trade qualifications. At that time (1988), the only entry was through the apprenticeship scheme, usually of 4 years training on and off the job. It virtually excluded mature-age entry, because most adults, with possible family commitments, could not survive on the very low wage of first and second year apprentices.

By supplementing that income gap, Workcare Rehabilitation offered people a means to gain trade qualifications and a more secure future. This particularly appealed to me and I encouraged the victims to consider such options.

Of course, there was also subsidies to employers to give a person a start and settlements where self-employment was a possibility. Overall, it offered the prospects of rebuilding the victims’ futures. I even gave the men ‘homework’ type tasks of researching occupational possibilities through the WIC.

By the final group session, the men were all positive and had decided on where they wanted to go. To my delight, one had decided on an electrical apprenticeship and had even found a likely employer. I negotiated that with Workcare and the employer so that in addition to the employee bridging income support, the employer received a placement subsidy. Since he was 28, with a young family, I thought it was a great outcome.

The other two made decisive breaks with their past occupations, while still using their experience and skills. One gained a position as a forklift driver and storeman in a transport company. The other negotiated a settlement in order to become self-employed, running a farm. All were very satisfied with their outcomes, and were glad to be able to move on with their lives and careers.

I had been impressed by the range of assistance available under Workcare from the very beginning. So the result was not so surprising to me, even though I had faced a major challenge in restoring their morale and confidence. With enough imagination and a firm determination, an injured or disabled employee stood every chance of redeployment.

The Cain Government’s implementation of Workcare, along with the Traffic Accident Commission (TAC) – particularly with their no-fault approach to claims and focus on the victim – were the two most outstanding reforms in my area of work (workplace rehabilitation).

I gained recognition and accreditation for working with people in this region for both bodies on the strength of the potroom asthma cases. Over the following years, I was able to successfully place a number of accident injury people into work.

I was immensely saddened when the unfunded liabilities of Workcare claims put the whole system under strain. And the saddest part to me was that the system was economically viable. It was arguably less costly than the previous adversarial workers compensation system. The flaw was that its very client empathy had led to the abuse of claims.

Rorting no doubt occurred, as it did with the previous system. But I think a bigger problem was that too many claimants took the easy way out. Instead of aiming to get back into work, too many found it too easy to stay out on income support.

An example at the time was between NSW and Victorian teachers. I think Victoria had about three times the number of teachers on Workcare from stress as NSW. It did not seem likely that the work environment was worse in Victoria — it was merely the ability to remain out of the workforce indefinitely on full benefits.

To the unions, many of which had had a very long history of battling for injured workers, Workcare was sacrosanct. The reaction to Cain and Jolly attempting to put a ceiling on claims/liabilities was savage. It finished the careers of these two leaders, which in turn finished the Labor government in Victoria. Everything needs to be viable. To ignore that is like killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

Today, Workcover is merely a faint shadow of what Workcare was, albeit its associated bodies like Worksafe are pro-active in occupational health and safety.

But from a claims and rehabilitation perspective, we have returned to the Dark Ages of petty-fogging insurers insisting on certificates and paperwork for everything and stringing everything out for as long as possible, seemingly in the hope of grinding down the claimant. Miraculously, the TAC seems to have escaped such a fate, even if its wings were clipped a little by penny-pinching governments.

My concern with the passing of Workcare equates with my concerns on the welfare state income support. These are necessary in a civilized humane society, but they become difficult to sustain economically and politically. The danger from the dark side is ever present, but within limits it can be held at bay, as we are seeing currently with the proposed National Disability scheme.

The danger I see is that the claimants as a whole do not understand the value and importance of such programs. Workcare was killed by too many claimants taking advantage of its generosity and lack of limits. They were not put there for people to help themselves, but to rescue people.

We see something similar with social security benefits. The Dole Bludger is an exaggerated media myth, but there are some who can exploit the system of income support.

These people know the system so well that the most stringent conditions will not catch them. They even know how to exploit the review and appeal mechanisms on the rare occasions when they do get caught.

A generation or so back, the hippy-left attitude (which I half-agreed with at the time) was, ‘let them live on the dole if they don’t want to work. They’d probably be unproductive anyway.’

The problem is not the rights or wrongs of that argument. It is really the hardship that their selfishness causes to those in genuine need, who should not have to jump through all those hoops.

Just consider: A Current Affair or Today Tonight gets a story on somebody screwing the system mightily and living the life of Riley. There is public outrage and an immediate knee-jerk reaction from the government and the bureaucracy.

What are the consequences?

A crackdown and a tightening up of guidelines and eligibility tests. Who suffers from this? Those with immediate and distressing needs who find themselves confronted with more obstacles before they can get the support they need.

The very people the support is set up for find themselves further humiliated when seeking assistance. This is what annoyed those of us in the CES and other support systems.

Many found themselves penalised for simply being honest in their declarations. That is the real cost of ripping off the system: those who really need it pay the cost.

I wish I knew the solution.

My own feeling is that resides somewhere around people accepting greater ethical responsibility for their claims and possibly being educated to understand that just because you can get away with it does not mean there is no cost.

The cost instead is borne by those that really need the support.

We need more systems like Workcare. But we will only be able to afford them when people realize that their theft becomes someone else’s loss. Just as the simplest forms of littering are really transferring the cost of disposal to others, so are those that rip off income support from compensation and social security shifting the cost to others.

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The Portland potroom asthma victims

Former rural employment counsellor Don Wilson recounts the case of the "potroom ...  
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