Harbison-Walker Refractories Company
Harbison-Walker Refractories Company was a maker of refractory materials, those construction, furnace, boiler, and other materials that need to be fireproof and able to withstand high temperatures. This includes things like fireproof bricks for furnaces. Over many years the company changed hands, changed names, and went through bankruptcy and reorganization.
Because the products the company manufactured were for high-heat environments, they contained a lot of asbestos. This led to thousands of lawsuits, which the company’s parent, Halliburton, eventually settled with the formation of a $4 billion asbestos trust. The trust came ahead of bankruptcy, but handled all valid settlements and is still active and taking claims now.
Today, the company is known as HarbisonWalker International, a name change that was made in 2015, long after it went through its original bankruptcy and reorganization. This most recent name change consolidated the company’s multiple brands, including Harbison-Walker Refractories Company, North American Refractories Company, and A.P. Green Refractories Company. The company currently manufactures refractory products in 17 locations in North America and at two other facilities, in Indonesia and the United Kingdom. None of their products now use asbestos. They provide refractory and fire safety products for a variety of industries: iron, steel, glass, power, petroleum, chemicals, and more.
The original company, called Star Fire Brick Company, was founded in 1865, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The name was changed to Harbison-Walker Refractories Company ten years later. Throughout its long history, Harbison-Walker has continued to focus on making refractory products, a wide range of materials designed to withstand environments at very high temperatures.
In 1967 Harbison-Walker was acquired by Dresser Industries, which at the time was a subsidiary of the large energy company Halliburton. By the late 1970s, claims related to asbestos illnesses, like mesothelioma, were beginning to hit Harbison-Walker and its parent companies. In 1998 Dresser and Halliburton merged. Halliburton would have to face the hundreds of thousands of lawsuits being brought against Harbison-Walker.
Asbestos in Products
As an early refractory company, it was inevitable that Harbison-Walker would have made its products with asbestos. In the 1900s, up to the 1970s approximately, asbestos was heavily used in a lot of industries. It was popular because it was abundant—asbestos is a natural mineral that can be mined—and also because it has special properties. For refractory product makers, the ability of asbestos to resist fire and heat was what made it so valuable. Companies like Harbison-Walker embedded asbestos into their fireproof materials, which was very effective.
Nearly all of the products that Harbison-Walker made up to a certain time included asbestos. The brand names that are known to have contained asbestos are Metalkase Firebrick, Chromepak G, Micracrete, and Harbison-Walker Lightweight Castable. Some other products made by the company with asbestos include asbestos ropes, refractory cement, and a variety of castables.
Working with asbestos can be very harmful because the tiny fibers that make up this mineral can easily break off and enter the air. From here they can be inhaled and instead of passing through the body, they lodge in tissues and cause damage and illness over time. Some people exposed in this way will develop deadly diseases later in life, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. No one knows why some people get sick from asbestos and others do not.
Harbison-Walker factory workers are among the people most put at risk of asbestos exposure due to the company’s use of the mineral. These workers spent long hours around and handling asbestos with plenty of opportunities for the fibers to be disturbed and to contaminate the air of the facilities. Also at risk were family members of these workers who likely brought fibers of asbestos home on their clothes. Workers in other industries that handled and used Harbison-Walker were also at risk of exposure and of getting sick, especially those that installed, repaired, or replaced the refractory materials.
Asbestos and Mesothelioma Lawsuits
It was inevitable that Harbison-Walker and its parent company would face the consequences of so many decades of working with asbestos. Victims of exposure came forward to claim that the company knew that the material was harmful to human health but failed to warn them and to provide them with proper safety training and gear.
One of the biggest lawsuits that the company had to face came just before it entered the protection of bankruptcy. Five victims of asbestos exposure filed a lawsuit against Harbison-Walker, A.P. Green Industries, another refractory company, and Armstrong Contracting and Supply. The jury found that these companies were indeed liable for the illnesses the men developed and awarded them with a $40 million settlement.
Asbestos Trust and Bankruptcy
Harbison-Walker is just one of many companies that formed an asbestos trust fund to compensate victims of asbestos exposure. However, their situation was also unique. Most companies formed these trust after going through bankruptcy, often as a condition of bankruptcy protection. Harbison-Walker formed the trust first, before bankruptcy, because the company leaders knew they would be facing inevitable claims and were able to make a deal with the company’s insurance underwriter.
The trust fund was created with $4 billion to compensate victims, a huge amount even by the standards of asbestos claims. A portion of the trust amount, $575 million, came from the insurance company, while the rest came from Halliburton and Harbison-Walker stock and insurance settlements. The name of the active trust fund is the DII Industries, LLC Asbestos Personal Injury Trust. Following the formation of the trust, Harbison-Walker entered bankruptcy protection in 2002. It emerged reorganized in 2003.
Harbison-Walker survived the thousands of lawsuits that came against it because of asbestos use, partly because of a timely move to form a trust even ahead of bankruptcy and to take advantage of a deal with the insurance underwriter. Still, the company could not survive without bankruptcy reorganization, which it underwent in the early 2000s. Today the company continues to make refractory products, more than 150 years after its founding. None of the products now contain asbestos, but there still may be workers coming forward to make claims from the trust for illnesses just beginning to develop.
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