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Union Asbestos and Rubber Company (UNARCO)

Known today as Unarco Industries and as a leading manufacturer of shopping carts of all types, the Union Asbestos and Rubber Company was at one time a maker of asbestos insulation products. UNARCO initially made insulation and thrived during the building booms of the 1950s and later. Selling insulation products to commercial and residential customers, the company grew rapidly in the middle of the twentieth century.

Although it stopped using asbestos decades ago, the damage caused by the use of the mineral in its insulation was extensive and is still ongoing. The company was forced to file for bankruptcy early in the 1980s and set an example for other asbestos companies. The reorganization of UNARCO included the formation of an asbestos trust that now compensates victims of asbestos exposure through their products but only those that were exposed before 1982.

About Unarco

Unarco Industries LLC is headquartered in Wagoner, Oklahoma and is a manufacturer and supplier of shopping carts. This is a specialized market but the company makes a wide range of types of carts and focuses on technology, roll cages for moving stock, and e-commerce. Unarco is one of the leading suppliers of this kind of equipment and it is currently developing an international presence in the market. Unarco is owned by Berkshire Hathaway and is part of the Marmon Group.

Company History

The original UNARCO, the Union Asbestos and Rubber Company, was founded in 1941 in Paterson, New Jersey. The company made insulation with asbestos and expanded rapidly after World War II thanks to a boom in housing and commercial building. A variety of insulation products were needed for new construction, including home insulation, pipe insulation, and specialized insulation for industrial equipment like boilers and furnaces. By the mid-1950s the company had moved headquarters to Bloomington, Illinois.

In the early 1960s, UNARCO bought the Folding Carrier Corporation, a company that was founded in 1937 by Sylvan Goldman, the man who invented the shopping cart. Folding Carrier was based in Oklahoma City and the purchase of it was what led UNARCO to eventually abandon asbestos insulation, change its name to Unarco Industries, and focus solely on making and distributing shopping carts. The company also moved its headquarters again to Wagoner, Oklahoma.

Throughout its years of making insulation, UNARCO used asbestos in nearly all of its products. This led to workers getting sick from exposure and eventually suing the company over it. By 1982 UNARCO became the first company to file for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection because of the overwhelming costs of asbestos lawsuits. The company reorganized, established a trust for asbestos victims, and today continues to be a successful, Oklahoma-based shopping cart manufacturer.

Asbestos Use in Insulation

UNARCO used asbestos extensively in its insulation products. Asbestos was a typical component of insulation at that time because it was so effective at insulating against heat, fireproofing, and keeping refrigerated units cold. Asbestos was also easy to get, with mines around the world producing it at low cost. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the federal government put restrictions in place to limit how and where asbestos could be used because of the overwhelming evidence that exposure to it could cause mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis.

The insulation that UNARCO made varied from home products used in residential construction to heavy duty industrial insulation for things like boilers, turbines, and furnaces and pipe insulation. The company’s insulation products went into a variety of buildings including homes, apartment buildings, factories, power plants, oil refineries, and many other industrial facilities.

Asbestos Exposure from UNARCO Insulation

UNARCO’s use of asbestos in insulation led to exposure to the deadly mineral in thousands of people. Most harmed were the workers who made the insulation. These workers had to process the asbestos and use it to make insulation products. Handling asbestos can cause the microscopic fibers to break off and enter the air. This in turn leads to inhalation by the workers and others in the area, and it is this that causes some people to get so sick in later years.

Other workers exposed or put at risk of exposure were those that handled and used the UNARCO insulation in other industries. Construction workers, for instance, who installed the insulation or did work on existing insulation, were likely to have disrupted the asbestos causing exposure. Other workers that could have been exposed include boilermakers, factory workers, welders, pipefitters, and workers in other industrial facilities like refineries, chemical plants, paper mills, or steel mills.

Asbestos Insulation

Because of the exposure and resulting asbestos illnesses in so many people who used or lived with UNARCO insulation, the company began to face lawsuits over liability and compensation. These began as early as the 1950s. Seventeen UNARCO employees filed claims in 1951, stating that working with asbestos in the factory had caused them to become ill. A survey of nearly 1,000 workers at UNARCO’s New Jersey facility between 1941 and 1945 proved that they had a higher proportion of respiratory illnesses than is seen in the general population.

A more recent case showed that it was not just the UNARCO workers who suffered from asbestos exposure. Juanita Rodarmel was the wife of a UNARCO employee, and she developed and died from mesothelioma after years of washing his asbestos-covered clothing. Her family filed a lawsuit against Unarco in 2009. During the trial it was determined that the company had tried to hide the risks of working with asbestos, and the family won a $2 million settlement.

Bankruptcy and Asbestos Trust

The number of lawsuits against UNARCO grew so rapidly that the company filed for bankruptcy in 1982. It was the first asbestos company to take this route, but it was followed by many more. UNARCO emerged from bankruptcy in 1989 and continued to operate as Unarco Industries, making shopping carts. As part of the reorganization agreement the company created an asbestos trust to handle future claims of asbestos exposure through UNARCO insulation and related illnesses. The trust is called the UNR Asbestos Disease Claims Trust and was funded with $114 million in 1990.

If you believe that UNARCO asbestos insulation caused you to develop a respiratory illness or cancer, you have a right to file a claim and request compensation. Unfortunately the trust is currently only accepting claims from people whose asbestos exposure occurred before 1982. This should not limit victims, however, as the company stopped using asbestos well before that. If you have questions about how to proceed, contact an experienced asbestos lawyer to help you.

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