In 2003 there were 235 deaths and nearly 160,000 non-fatal injuries from accidents in UK workplaces. Deaths from asbestos are likely to reach 150,000 over the next 30 years. Yet it is more than 200 years since the first protective legislation on health and safety — the 1802 “Health and Morals of Apprentices Act” — was passed. How far has the protection of health and safety at work improved? How effective is protective legislation?
The exhibition “Hazard! Health in the workplace over 200 years” at Manchester’s People’s History Museum until 10 July traces the history of health and safety at work in the UK and marks 60 years of Manchester University’s Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health.
The exhibition uses oral history interviews with workers in the North West, film, posters, documents and artefacts.
The oral testimony provides graphic accounts of the dangers faced historically in the workplace. A woman weaver recounts how, working in a mill from the age of 12, she had to “kiss the shuttle” — replace broken threads on the loom by sucking a cotton thread through the shuttle, leading to the eventual loss of her teeth. A flickering film from 1910 shows young women weavers scuttling between the looms they are watching.
A railway worker describes an accident caused by a runaway steam train in a goods yard that killed one worker. An inexperienced 19-year-old apprentice fireman is left in control of the engine after the older driver collapses. The workers later find out that he collapsed into a diabetic coma after an examination by the company doctor failed to diagnose diabetes, and passed him fit for work.
Four connected issues run through attempts to get improvements in health and safety: recognition of the threats; legal regulation; enforcement of the law and prevention in the workplace; and compensation and care for those whose health suffers as a result of their work.
Recognition of the causes is not just or even necessarily the result of increased scientific knowledge. It has usually required a struggle by the workers affected, who are often the first to pinpoint the link between working conditions and specific illnesses.
One film shows medical researchers in the late 1940s using chest X-rays to investigate the extent of lung disease among miners, ex-miners and the broader population in the pit villages of the Rhondda. Yet, before this, it had taken a long struggle by their union, the South Wales Miners’ Federation (SWMF), to get pneumoconiosis (“Black Lung”) recognised as a work-related disease liable for compensation. Pneumoconiosis had nearly disappeared until the introduction of mechanised coal-cutting machinery in the 1930s spread more coal dust in the pits. The then private coalmine owners resisted the costs of compensation, while the medical consensus of the period was that silica dust caused lung disease but coal dust didn’t.
The SWMF fought individual claims and took legal action to widen the legal definition of illness. They took political action through their sponsored MPs to get new legislation and government-funded research. They aimed to influence scientific opinion both by using “their own” experts and by getting independent confirmation of what their own knowledge told them must be the case.
Even after pneumoconiosis was recognised as eligible for compensation in 1943, there remained battles about who was eligible. Even as late as 1996, after most mines had closed, NACODS, the pit deputies’ union, was taking legal action to get other lung diseases such as emphysema recognised as the result of work in the mines.
A similar pattern of employer resistance to recognising threats to health, gradual winning over of the scientific establishment, legislation (in the best cases), and disputes about eligibility for compensation has occurred or is occurring with the use of pesticides, asbestos, repetitive strain injury and Gulf War syndrome.
Asbestos was linked to deaths at work as long ago as 1906 (longer if one counts the observations of Pliny the Elder in the first century AD!). The scientific link to lung cancer was established in 1955, but asbestos use not banned until 1985. Those suffering asbestos-related diseases still face long legal cases to establish employers’ liability, as with our comrade Rob Dawber who died of mesothelioma in 2002.
The exhibition states: “In the 1830s campaigners began to demand limits on child labour and better protection for all workers. Over the next 170 years governments gradually limited hours, provided industrial inspectors, introduced compensation and banned child labour.”
However, even nominal legal protection does not necessarily translate into better and safer jobs. Marx talked of the limited powers and insufficient numbers of the inspectors enforcing the 19th-century Factory Acts. Today, current estimates are that workplaces are likely to see a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector once every 15–20 years, if ever. The HSE is facing cuts, and has accepted a more “de-regulatory policy” as demanded by the CBI and other employers. Legal regulation is not an adequate defence, without the powers and personnel to enforce it.
The exhibition, particularly when considering child labour, points out not just that “children in some developing countries work in conditions similar to those in 19th century Britain” and that “occupational illnesses common in Britain in the past are now found among workers in developing countries” but also that “Britain and other developed countries have now transferred many hazardous technologies, industries and working practices to developing countries”.
Today we have to build links with those fighting the conditions created by multinationals around the world.
One major criticism of “Hazard!” is that it leaves hanging — literally, on the wall — the question “How can you protect your health at work or at school?”. Many of the exhibits might lead one to think that governments and scientists are benevolent and will do the job for us. Yet the history shows that we have to organise collectively in unions and fight in order to get healthier, safer workplaces.