David Laughlan was Dirk Jansen’s first employee when the man now known as “Mr Fluffy” had the idea of spraying asbestos into people’s roof spaces as insulation.
Mr Laughlan spoke to The Canberra Times on Tuesday from his Queensland home, where he is preparing to have a CT scan to check any ill-effects from the job he had as a teenager installing the loose-fill asbestos insulation.
He worked initially as a plasterer’s labourer for Mr Jansen in the late 1960s, before he and a salesman were given the job of selling and installing the new insulation idea.
One of them would feed the asbestos by hand from bags into a hopper in the back of a Toyota Stout light truck, and the other would get into the roof cavity of the house and spray it through a blower between the joists in the ceiling, about four inches thick, he said. He had no mask or other safety equipment and no idea the material was a health risk.
“I suppose we all got the wool pulled over our eyes. We didn’t know it was dangerous,” he said. “Nobody knew in [those] days … You can’t really blame for something that happened 40 years ago. I don’t think Dirk Jansen, he wasn’t there to hurt anyone. He just thought he was doing a good, cheap insulating job and he was making a few quid out of it.”
Mr Laughlan only worked for Mr Jansen for six months, but said in just that short time he sprayed asbestos into four or five houses a day, and would have done hundreds of houses in all.
“If I only worked for him for six months and if we were doing five houses a day, five days a week, you’ve only got to do the maths,” he said. “That’s an awful lot of houses and it was a big money spinner, it was cheap.”
At a rate of 20 a week, 1000 homes would have been insulated with the material in just one year, but Mr Fluffy operated for at least 11 years from 1968 until 1979.
The 1049 homes now known to have contained Mr Fluffy insulation came to light more than 20 years ago when the government surveyed 65,000 homes built before 1980 for the asbestos.
The homes found in the survey were cleared but are now discovered to have fibres remaining in the walls and subfloors, in some cases contaminating the living areas, sparking the latest crisis. Just five homes have come to light since, missed in the initial clean-up.
Mr Laughlan, from Glasgow, emigrated with his family at 13. Now 65, he said he was about 18 when he worked for Mr Jansen.
The only questionable aspect of the business that he recalls was the source of the asbestos – he believes there was a trade embargo at the time on imports from South Africa, given the apartheid regime, so the asbestos bales came from South Africa via New Zealand and the name of their source country was blacked out with tar.
“He thought he’d get into trouble for trading with a South African company,” Mr Laughlan said of Mr Jansen.
Mr Laughlan went from that job to Sydney then back to Canberra until the mid 1970s, when he moved to Queensland, where he lives about an hour out of Brisbane.
He only started thinking about the risks of his insulation job years later when asbestos dangers became widely known. About a decade ago he had a lung scan, which showed no ill-effects. He is now booking a full CT scan and lung biopsy.
Mr Laughlan, who has two children in their 40s, said he had always had “breathing problems”, “but not bad enough to want to sue anyone”. “It’s just for my own self, I’d rather know everything’s okay.”
But as for the asbestos, he says: “I’m sure he didn’t do it on purpose, he was a nice bloke to work for.”
Mr Laughlan and wife Julie say they understand the seriousness and concern for people living in Mr Fluffy homes, and they’d like to know more also about the health effects on other employees.