The Australian factory worker who forced an entire country to sit up and take a look at its growing asbestos problem has died.
According to multiple sources, Bernie Banton, age 61, succumbed to mesothelioma on Tuesday, November 27th at his home, surrounded by his family. Reuters News Service called him “the face of a global campaign” for compensation for employees of James Hardie Industries, who were exposed to dangerous asbestos dust during their work at the international building products company’s Australian factories.
“We were known as the snowmen because the only part you could see that wasn’t white were your eyes. They never told us that it would kill you,” Banton told Reuters in 2004.
The company used asbestos in the manufacturing of wallboard and other products until the mineral was banned in Australia in 1984. The dangerous substance was widely used at Hardie due to its fire resistant qualities.
Reuters reports that Banton worked the night shift at Hardie’s Sydney plant for six years, where it was his job to make molds of cement, silica and asbestos. Of the 137 fellow workers at the plant, including Banton’s two brothers, fewer than 10 are still alive, most having developed asbestos-related illnesses.
Coincidentally, Banton’s death came in the middle of Australia’s National Asbestos Awareness Week. His family members say he was satisfied with his accomplishments, which included helping to set up a $4 billion compensation fund for Hardie workers who develop asbestos-related diseases, and campaigning for the availability of the drug Alimta to treat those suffering from mesothelioma.
“He was a very happy and gregarious sort of person with a great sense of humor but he was also quite angry about what had happened to him,” said labor leader Greg Combet. “But more important than that, he was angry on behalf of all others and he wanted to ensure that justice was done.”
The New South Wales government has offered the Banton family a state funeral to honor Bernie. They have accepted the honor and the funeral will be held next Wednesday at the Olympic Park.