Robert DiPirro died of asbestos-caused mesothelioma on September 4, 2002. Bob went to work at the Durez Division of Hooker Chemical and Plastics in North Tonawanda, New York in November, 1958. The production process in the resin buildings where Bob was assigned to work was very dusty, and the dust was highly explosive. On January 3, 1969, a powerful explosion ripped across several buildings. Several men died that day, and many others were severely injured. Bob suffered third degree burns. He was unable to return to work full-time for two and one-half years. During this period of recuperation he became a tireless volunteer and fundraiser for the Burn Treatment Center at Emergency Hospital in Buffalo. Among the events which he organized was a musical show featuring Mitzi Gaynor at Melody Fair in Wurlitzer Park, North Tonawanda.
Upon his return to full-time work at Durez in 1971, Bob became intensely involved in safety issues. His typical day included several hours touring buildings and grounds throughout the entire facility. When he found hazardous conditions, he not only brought them to the attention of labor and management, he used his authority as a union officer to insist on closing down operations until the problems were fixed.
Dust explosions were a constant worry at Durez, but as deadly as they were, it was Bob’s fate to address an even more deadly problem lurking at the plant. Durez had used asbestos as a filler material for the production of plastic molding compound since before Bob’s arrival there in 1958. It was, as far as he and others at Durez knew, just another raw material shipped in from outside and thrown into the mix that ultimately became the stuff used to make durable plastics for the automotive and other industries. However, by the early 1980s, it was becoming clear to the American public that asbestos was a killer, and some of Bob’s co-workers were becoming sick from asbestosis and then from a very rare disease known as mesothelioma. They learned that it would take between twenty and fifty years for the disease to take hold before it crippled or killed its victims. Bob educated himself and spread the word at the plant about the dangers of asbestos. The Durez facility itself had discontinued the use of asbestos by 1979.
The death toll from asbestos disease was just beginning to rise when Bob and other strong union activists throughout New York State started to lobby in Albany for a change in state law that would finally give the victims of industrial diseases, like silicosis, asbestosis and cancers like mesothelioma, their day in court. In New York State a worker had to bring his lawsuit for one of these industrial diseases within three years of the date of his last exposure to hazardous dusts or chemicals. Bob and his colleagues lobbied hard to change this law, and they succeeded in 1986 when the Legislature passed The Toxic Tort Reform Act. Under the new law, a worker could file his lawsuit within three years of the date of the onset of his disease. This was a major victory for workers in our state and one for which Bob and others should long be remembered. However, Bob’s work did not end in Albany.
In the decades following World War II, over two thousand workers became employed at Durez. Some worked for thirty years and retired. Some worked for a brief period and then found work elsewhere. And some were college students who worked a few summers to help pay for their education. Realizing that every single man and woman who passed through the gates was at risk of developing asbestosis or cancer, Bob, in his capacity as Union President, pressed management for an annual medical screening program for retirees and former workers and their spouses and for a special enhanced pension. In 1986 he succeeded in persuading the company to establish the screening program and the pension. Although Bob did not have a crystal ball, he clearly foresaw the importance of the screening program. Bob became its Director and remained so until his death last year. The screening program grew under his watchful eye and has helped detect many cases of disease at early stages so that more effective treatment could be provided. The pension program made it possible for hundreds of Durez workers to afford to retire early so they could enjoy their remaining years. The financial benefits have eased the burden of the widows of the men who have died directly as a result of the exposures they experienced at Durez.
Bob died of mesothelioma. He could never have known when he first began to campaign for safety that he would one day become a victim of the worst industrial scandal the world has ever known. So far, there have been more than forty deaths from mesothelioma among the Durez work force. Every year in the United States about 2500 people die of this disease. Bob DiPirro was married for 47 years to Marlene who passed away in 1998. He is survived by their five children and by many friends.