The Toll from Toil Revisited: Lessons from the Past in Occupational Health and Safety
Edited by Michael Quinlan and Sarah Gregson
Guardians of Workers’ Bodies? Trade Unions and the History of Occupational Health and Safety
Critically assessing the role and influence of trade unions on occupational health and safety (OHS), and tracing their contribution to OHS discourse is here examined through the lens of history in Britain positioned relative to international experience. The idea of trade union neglect of OHS is challenged through study of the historic role of trade unions and the more recent experience (since the 1970s) of unions’ growing interest in OHS whilst simultaneously experiencing a sharp decline in membership and the adverse impact of this disempowerment on OHS standards. Acknowledging the politics of gender shows British unions neglected occupational health and embodiment issues that impacted upon women as workers. Robust and compelling evidence from the mid-twentieth century – that unions were a powerful countervailing force to workplace dangers, as key sentinels shielding workers’ bodies – is followed by evidence of increasing occupational illnesses in the period of union decline and precarious work from c1980. The paper urges more critical reflection on trade unions as actors and as a voice in the OHS discourse.
Knowledge Activists on Health and Safety: Workmen-Inspectors in Metalliferous Mining in Australia 1901–25
Michael Quinlan and David Walters
Worker campaigns for a more direct say in protecting their health and safety are a significant but under-researched subject in labour history. Largely overlooked are the attempts by coalminers in the UK, Australia and Canada to establish mechanisms for representation on health and safety in the 1870s. This push for a voice then spread to New Zealand, France, Belgium and other countries, with unions eventually securing legislative rights to inspect their workplaces a century before workers in other industries gained similar entitlements. In Australia metalliferous miners’ unions followed coalminers in initiating a parallel campaign for the right to appoint their own mine-site and district inspectors (known as “check-inspectors”) from the late nineteenth century. This paper examines the struggle for and activities/impact of workmen-inspectors in Australian metalliferous mines, including adoption of the competing UK-Australian and Continental-European models. It finds the development conforms to a resistance rather than mutual-cooperation perspective with check-inspectors performing the role of “knowledge activists.” The paper argues this finding is not only relevant to understanding more recent experience of worker involvement in occupational health and safety but also demonstrates the relevance of historical research to contemporary regulatory policy debates and union strategies.
“Re-Emergence” of Silicosis and Coal Workers Pneumoconiosis in Australia
Some reporters, politicians, and doctors have described current cases as a “re-emergence” of these diseases based on the notion that they had been eliminated. However, silicosis persisted in centuries old industries like sandblasting and stonemasonry and CWP continued in coal mining. Until recently, their presence was obscured by a combination of factors such as misdiagnosis, especially if there was a history of smoking; the failure to follow up workers thought to have silicosis or CWP; the long latency period between dust-exposure and disease onset that can conceal the link between the two; and the lack of data collection that may have revealed their presence. As the recent Queensland government inquiry into CWP noted, current cases are more accurately a re-identification.
“Fix the Workplace, Not the Worker”: Labour Feminism and the Shifting Grounds of Equality in the US Workplace, 1960–91
Elizabeth Faue, Josiah Rector, and Amanda Lauren Walter
The US Supreme Court decision in UAW v. Johnson Controls, a landmark case that eliminated employer policies that excluded women from jobs with significant reproductive risks, has been the focus of considerable debate. While challenging policies that decided what risks were acceptable for women of childbearing age, critics charged that the ruling weakened labour law protections for women in the United States and lowered standards for all workers. Yet, the case emerged at a time when workplace protections under the Occupational Health and Safety Administration were already failing due to deregulation and unions were running into growing employer hostility. This article argues that labour feminists in the United Auto Workers (UAW) hoped to simultaneously force employers to end sex discrimination and toxic exposures in the workplace. They only shifted to the narrower legal strategy that prevailed in Johnson Controls in the late 1970s and 1980s for pragmatic reasons. Using equal opportunity provisions of the Civil Rights Act was one way for union plaintiffs to ensure that employers were not using foetal protection policies as an end-run around a safer workplace for all workers. Yet, while women workers and unions originally sought to “fix the workplace, not the worker,” conservative opposition accepted women having fewer labour protections while endorsing a less protected and riskier workplace.
“No Place for Tourists”: Deaths on Western Australian Construction Sites
The deaths of three young “backpackers” on Perth building sites is the starting point for this investigation of an industry that is ranked the third most dangerous in Western Australia. All were on a working holiday. They were unskilled, untrained and underpaid, revealing aspects of the construction industry since the beginning of the twenty-first century. The article suggests these fatalities are occurring, despite OHS reforms and mandatory training, because the decline of trade union rights and presence on work sites has led to inadequate policing and enforcement of safety measures. Deregulation and employers’ over-emphasis on productivity have resulted in an unskilled, casual workforce and a culture of blaming individual employees rather than management which has created a climate of fear where those who draw attention to safety breaches risk losing their jobs. The article considers arguments for introducing industrial manslaughter legislation but the evidence suggests that the most effective solutions are to restore union rights. This would encourage a culture in which workers have a voice, and pointing out safety breaches on sites could be rewarded, rather than penalised.
Philanthropy and the “Management” of Working-Class Women: The West Gate Bridge Disaster
Sarah Gregson and Elizabeth Humphrys
The West Gate Bridge collapse in 1970 is one of the worst industrial disasters in Australian history. Closely examined for the engineering lessons it provides, scholarly interest in its historical, social, and industrial import is far less extensive. This article examines the role of union leaders, employers, and a private welfare organisation called the Citizens Welfare Service (CWS) in the management of funds raised to support the victims and families of the disaster. More broadly, it reveals philanthropic attitudes and practices adopted to manage working families’ needs in the 1970s that were not altogether dissimilar from those of nineteenth-century philanthropists. Despite the families’ raw grief in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, “home visitors” from the CWS felt entitled to offer heavily gendered and class-based advice to widows about frugal budgeting, domestic order, and composed behaviour. The case management style employed by this welfare agency demonstrated a derivative commitment to capitalist mores that promoted hard work and thrift, while stigmatising welfare dependence.
“We Just Thought We Were Superhuman”: An Oral History of Noise and Piecework in Paisley’s Thread Mills
Paisley, in the West of Scotland, was once the world capital of industrial thread making. Existing scholarship on the thread works has focused on the “great men” of the mill-owning Coats and Clark families, neglecting the experience of female factory workers. This article explores the hidden history of the experience of work-induced illness and disability over the long term, from the perspective of women who worked in Paisley’s thread mills. It draws upon extant oral history interviews and 13 new interviews with former millworkers. There is a particular focus on two work-health interactions. First, repeated exposure to the constant roar of machinery, which resulted in hearing loss. Second, piecework – compelling women to work at speed and to engage in repetitive movements and awkward postures in order to increase their earnings – which had a debilitating effect on their joints and limbs in later life. This article examines oral testimony of the long-term health implications for Paisley’s female thread workers and reveals that women engaged in risky work practices not only as victims of the industrial process but with agency in their desire to earn increased wages. This agency was framed within the inevitability of the absorption of risk, and curtailed by mechanical, social and financial factors.
“If You Thought about Those Things, Your Life Would Be a Misery!” Mental Health and the Safety of Seafarers
Seafaring has long been recognised as a hazardous occupation with the ever-present risk of disease, drowning or serious often-fatal injuries from fires, accidents, shipwrecks or simply falling overboard. Health and safety concerns about physical dangers came to include illness from toxic substances but only recently has attention turned to the psychological hazards of shipboard living and working under conditions of isolation. A recent survey of seafarers working in the cargo shipping industry is the first sustained, methodical study to investigate the mental wellbeing of ships crews. It provides a wealth of statistical and other information from both crews and the companies employing them that, it is suggested here, is of value for further research, and an opportunity for labour historians.
Railway Work, Life and Death: Exploring British and Irish Railway Worker Accidents, c. 1890–1939
The “Railway Work, Life & Death” project explores accidents and ill-health amongst British and Irish railway workers from the late nineteenth century to 1939. Drawing from state, railway company and trade union records, the project is making details of the working lives and accidents of railway employees more easily accessible. This note describes the collaborative impetus behind the project, and the crowd-sourcing methodology used, including the importance of working with volunteers. It shows that focusing on individual cases, at scale, is extremely revealing about the nature of work and the dangers of one of the largest employers of its time. It aims to encourage others to engage with crowd-sourcing and co-creation, as well as to make use of the resources being produced.