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Migration and work in postwar Australia: mortality profile comparisons between Australian and Italian workers exposed to blue asbestos at Wittenoom
  1. Alison Reid1,
  2. Enzo Merler2,
  3. Susan Peters3,
  4. Nimashi Jayasinghe3,
  5. Vittoria Bressan2,
  6. Peter Franklin3,
  7. Fraser Brims3,4,
  8. Nicholas H de Klerk3,5,
  9. Arthur W Musk3
  1. 1 School of Public Health, Curtin University, Bentley, Australia
  2. 2 Venetian Mesothelioma Registry, Occupational Health Unit, Local Health Authority, National Health Service, Padua, Italy
  3. 3 School of Population Health, University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia
  4. 4 Curtin Medical School, Curtin University, Perth, Australia
  5. 5 Telethon Kids Institute, University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia
  1. Correspondence to Dr Alison Reid, School of Public Health Curtin University Kent Street Bentley, WA, 6102, Australia; alison.reid{at}


Objectives Three hundred and thirty thousand Italians arrived in Australia between 1945 and 1966, many on assisted passage schemes where the worker agreed to a 2-year unskilled employment contract. Italians were the largest of 52 migrant groups employed at the Wittenoom blue asbestos mining and milling operation. We compare mortality from asbestos-related diseases among Italian and Australian workers employed at Wittenoom.

Methods A cohort of 6500 male workers was established from employment records and followed up at state and national mortality and cancer registries. SMRs were calculated to compare mortality with the Western Australian male population. Time-varying Cox proportional hazards models compared the risk of mesothelioma between Australian and Italian workers.

Results 1031 Italians and 3465 Australians worked at Wittenoom between 1943 and 1966. Duration of employment was longer for the Italian workers, although the concentration of exposure was similar. The mesothelioma mortality rate per 100 000 was higher in Italians (184, 95% CI 148 to 229) than Australians (128, 95% CI 111 to 149). The risk of mesothelioma was greater than twofold (HR 2.27, 95% CI 1.43 to 3.60) in Italians at the lowest asbestos exposure category (<10 fibre years/per mL).

Conclusions A hierarchy in migration, isolation and a shortage of workers led to Italians at Wittenoom incurring higher cumulative exposure to blue asbestos and subsequently a greater rate of malignant mesothelioma than Australian workers.

Impact Poor working conditions and disparities between native and foreign-born workers has had a detrimental and differential impact on the long-term health of the workforce.

  • Migration
  • Asbestos
  • Mesothelioma
  • Migrant Workers

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  • Contributors AR and EM conceived the idea. AR, NJ, SP and NHdK undertook the statistical analysis. All authors contributed to statistical interpretation. AR and EM wrote the first draft, and all other authors contributed to that draft.

  • Funding National Health and Medical Research Council Project grant # 634458.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Ethics approval Health Department of Western Australia Human Research Ethics Department.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.