19 J.L. & Soc'y 365 (1992)
The Asbestos Regulations 1931: A License to Kill

handle is hein.journals/jlsocty19 and id is 379 raw text is: JOURNAL OF LAW AND SOCIETY
VOLUME 19, NUMBER 3, AUTUMN 1992
0263-323X $3.00
The Asbestos Regulations 1931:
A Licence to Kill?
NICK WIKELEY*
INTRODUCTION
Asbestos has rightly been described as the 'grand-daddy of all occupational
killers'.1 It is also very much a twentieth-century phenomenon, although the
history of asbestos exploitation has been traced back as far as c. 2500 BC.2
Litigation in the American courts has revealed how the asbestos industry
systematically suppressed findings by medical and scientific researchers which
pointed to the carcinogenicity of asbestos.3 The consequent emphasis in the
literature on corporate concealment has meant that the role of the state in
regulating the use of asbestos in the workplace has not been explored so fully.
The analysis in this article will draw on previously unpublished Home Office
and TUC papers, held respectively at the Public Record Office and in the
Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick.4 These reveal the
course of negotiations between the Home Office (then responsible for the
Factory Department), the leading asbestos manufacturers, and the TUC,
which led up to the Asbestos Industry Regulations 1931.1 The 1931
regulations represented the first legislative response in any industrialized
country to the hazard posed by asbestos and were designed to lay down
elementary dust control measures in the asbestos textile industry. The article
will show how these standards were largely agreed between the Home Office
and the manufacturers before the trade unions were consulted, with literally
fatal consequences for thousands of workers during the following years.
The events leading up to the 1931 regulations are therefore not merely
of historical interest, but remain significant in two ways. First, they
provide contemporary lessons for the regulation of potentially hazardous
substances in both the workplace and the general environment. Secondly,
the failings of the early controls continue to have a very real impact
today. The 1931 regulations applied to British industry right up until 1970,
* Faculty of Law, The University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15
2TT, England
An early draft of this article was delivered at the 1992 Socio-Legal Studies Association Annual
Conference, held at the University of Keele. I am grateful to all those who commented on that
paper.

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