J.H. France Refractories Company
J.H. France was a company that was founded in the early 1900s to make refractory materials, those materials needed in construction and industrial settings to withstand very high temperatures. Today the company sells firebricks and is known as Snowshoe Refractories, Inc. It is based out of Pennsylvania, and although it faced many lawsuits over the years for asbestos exposure, it never went into bankruptcy and it never created a trust fund to pay settlements to victims of asbestos exposure and mesothelioma.
J.H. France Today
The J.H. France name was retired and today the company, which still makes refractory products, is called Snowshoe. It is based out of Snowshoe Pennsylvania, and it likely changed names to distance itself from the lawsuits over asbestos illnesses. Refractory materials include all types of materials, like cement, fabrics and bricks, that need to stand up to very high temperatures. Today, the Snowshoe Company focuses on a wide variety of firebricks and there is no longer any asbestos used in them. They also provide fire-resistant mortars, castables, and plastics. Their bricks are designed to withstand temperatures up to 3100 degrees Fahrenheit.
While today the company is focused on firebricks, which it distributes around the country and to international customers without using asbestos, there was a time when asbestos was prevalent and commonly used in all refractory materials and products. Today’s Snowshoe began more than 100 years ago as the J.H. France Refractories Company.
The company was founded in the early 1900s and has always been a manufacturer of refractory products. The original headquarters of the company were in Long Island, New York. Over the decades the company acquired others and added to its lineup of products and materials, almost all of which contained asbestos. Even the acquired companies used asbestos, including the Van Brunt Company, also a maker of refractory materials, especially a type of asbestos cement, which used a high amount of the harmful mineral to resist heat.
Asbestos in J.H France Products
Before it was widely understood that asbestos was harmful to human health, many industries relied on it to make materials and products. Asbestos could easily be mined from the ground making it inexpensive and readily available. Best of all for manufacturers, it has unique properties that make it useful in a variety of materials and products: it resists heat and fire, it adds strength, it resists electricity, and it resists chemical reactions.
For refractory products like those made by J.H. France, the use of asbestos was a given. Materials that needed to stand up to high temperatures were made with asbestos for many decades. Companies like J.H. France relied on this mineral to make fire bricks, high-temperature cement, castables, and even fireproof fabrics and safety gear. Although the modern company no longer uses asbestos, it was commonly used throughout the refractories industry up until the federal regulations limiting asbestos use in the 1970s.
The reasons for those limitations that were put on asbestos use are related to human health. It was discovered long before the 1970s that exposure to asbestos could make people sick. It took many years, however, for the knowledge to become widespread and for employers to stop putting workers at risk. Many did not make changes until forced to by the regulations set by the Environmental Protection Agency. J.H. France, like other companies, used asbestos for a significant period of time, and put workers at risk as a result.
Those workers who manufactured the J.H. France refractory materials were put at risk because they were directly exposed to asbestos. By handling and being around asbestos they were at risk of inhaling loose fibers of the mineral. These fibers, instead of passing through the body, lodged in tissues. In some people this leads to damage over many years that ultimately causes illnesses like lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis, a progressive scarring of the lungs.
These workers also often brought fibers of asbestos home on their clothing. Family members were then at risk of developing the illnesses as well because they may have inhaled the fibers without even being aware of it. In addition to J.H. France employees and their families, people who worked in other industries that used their products were also in danger of becoming sick. This especially includes workers that installed, maintained, and repaired boilers and furnaces, a major setting for refractory products. Foundry workers, masons, construction workers, and others were put at serious risk.
Illnesses like mesothelioma, caused by asbestos, do not typically appear until decades after exposure. So companies like J.H. France didn’t see lawsuits until many years after they used asbestos in operations. Some lawsuits are still being filed as older, retired workers start to get sick and receive diagnoses of mesothelioma and lung cancer.
One such case against J.H. France came in 2012 and was brought by an electrician who worked in a steel plant. Roscoe Peters was diagnosed with mesothelioma, and he and his wife brought a lawsuit against 86 defenders, all companies that made asbestos-containing materials that Peters worked with or around. This included J.H. France because of the refractory materials used in the plant. Peters worked in the steel plant from 1950 to 1983.
Another similar lawsuit was brought against multiple defendants, including J.H. France, in 2012. The plaintiff was a 59 year old man named Charles Klingensmith who claimed he was exposed to asbestos while working as a brick cutter and a metal fabricator. He claimed that this exposure led to his mesothelioma.
Although J.H. France has faced numerous lawsuits like these, the company never filed for bankruptcy protection. It also never began an asbestos trust fund to compensate victims. Instead it has defended itself against lawsuits and ultimately became a new company, Snowshoe, while still manufacturing now asbestos-free fireproof and refractory materials.
Many people suffered because of the use of asbestos in many industries. The refractory industry was a big contributor to asbestos exposure in many people. While J.H. France was able to avoid bankruptcy, it did not survive lawsuits unscathed, and was forced to find a new identity. It continues to be successful today and no longer uses asbestos.
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