Health in the workplace over 200 years
“While they minister our necessities or please our tastes and fancies, they are impairing their health and shortening their days”, English pamphlet, 1782
As the author of this 18th century pamphlet noted, work can be bad for you. A recent exhibition at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, looked at the effects of hazardous working conditions on people’s health over the last 200 years. Until the nineteenth century, ordinary people had almost no protection against work-related hazards such as industrial disease, accidents and poor working conditions. Governments and employers showed little interest in employees’ health and most workers accepted that hazards were an inevitable part of working life. With the Industrial Revolution came new technology, transport and working practices, which led to dramatic changes for working people. Faster forms of transport such as canals and railways, and the move from local cottage industry to the factories created new hazards and changed the relationship between worker and employer. During the 1830s in Britain the Factory movement began to demand limits on child labour and better protection for all workers 1). Gradually, governments began to respond to these demands, recording accidents or cases of industrial illness, ensuring compensation and appointing industrial inspectors in specific trades such as the textile industry. However, while there have been dramatic improvements in public health since the nineteenth century, hazardous working conditions continue to cause ill health to millions in Europe and beyond 2).
The museum worked with staff at the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health (COEH) at the University of Manchester to produce the exhibition in celebration of the COEH’s 60th anniversary. The exhibition used objects, posters, photographs, films, banners and oral history from the museum’s own collections and from those held by COEH and British regional and national museums. Hazard! was approached through the following themes: long term health, safety, child labour, leisure industries and the future of occupational health.
Dust, noise, heavy-lifting, exposure to chemicals, bad lighting and poor ventilation have all caused ill health to the British workforce 3). The long-term health section of the exhibition began with a look at the hazards faced by pieceworkers in the early 20th century. Pieceworkers, often women and children, worked at home and were paid according to what they produced rather than by an hourly rate. Bad lighting, dusty conditions and repetitive work caused poor eyesight, respiratory problems and musculoskeletal disorders among pieceworkers such as box makers. Very low pay meant a poor diet which also left such workers vulnerable to ill health 4). In the exhibition a poster from the museum’s collection showing minimum rates for box makers in 1912 reflected state concern for these workers whose successors continue to be at risk from exploitation today.
In the same period, workers in the British textile industry were campaigning to improve their health by ending practises such as kissing the shuttle and steaming. The exhibition featured cartoons by Sam Fritton to illustrate the health and safety concerns of cotton workers. These cartoons had originally appeared in the Cotton Factory Times, a trade magazine featuring technical news, trade union activity and humour for textile workers. The cartoon Kissin’ the Shuttle (1911) refered to the method of threading the cotton shuttle using the mouth. ‘Kissing the shuttle’ caused mouth disease and dental problems among workers and was actively campaigned against by trade unions. The second cartoon, Oh Do Dry Up (1913) refered to the unpopular process of keeping the atmosphere moist for cotton production. ‘Steaming’ was also the subject of union activity but may have been uncomfortable rather than hazardous. The health section of the exhibition also showed how the hat-making industry affected worker’s health. In hatting towns such as Stockport in Northwest England, workers suffered from a condition known as Hatters’ Madness. The felting process involved in hat making exposed workers to the risk of mercury poisoning which was thought to cause symptoms such as shakiness, memory loss and insanity. In 1865 the condition was characterised by the Mad Hatter in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The exhibition contained a felt top hat to show visitors that industrial hazards can affect all types of workers.
The introduction of industrial compensation, protective clothing and efforts to monitor working conditions has improved industrial health and helped broaden the definition of occupational ill health. According to the Health and Safety executive today around 2.2 million people a year suffer ill health thought to be caused or made worse by their work 5). Office workers, farmers, factory workers and nurses are affected by musculoskeletal disorders caused by heavy lifting or uncomfortable working positions. Call centre workers suffer stress caused by high-pressure environments and a lack of control over their work 6). Even substances, which killed or disabled in the past, remain in our everyday environment today. Samples of white and blue asbestos from the Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health (COEH) at the University of Manchester were on display in the exhibition. Asbestos was used heavily in the shipbuilding and construction industries for its fireproofing qualities but caused a public health scandal in the 1970s when it was revealed it caused lung cancers such as Mesothelioma. Today Asbestos-related illnesses continue to affect ex-employees, their families and local communities.
Safety education and new legislation have changed attitudes towards accidents in the workplace. During the Industrial Revolution many workers were maimed or killed excavating canals, laying railway tracks, building bridges and using explosives to carve out tunnels 7). Railway workers were injured in collisions and when attaching trains together. Hazard! featured a railway surgeon’s kit from the museum’s collection as an early example of occupational health care. The kit was a popular but gruesome object for visitors since it included a blade for amputating fingers. While victims of accidents at work might be offered immediate medical attention, few received ongoing medical care or compensation for their injuries. Throughout the 19th century, state intervention gradually increased as governments produced accident statistics and appointed industrial inspectors. Despite these advances major accidents continued to cause tragedy to ordinary working people. One of the most poignant of the displays was a sample of objects relating to the Pretoria Pit disaster in Westhoughton in the north of England. In 1910 a huge gas explosion killed 344 local men and boys at the pit. The set of purses and watches on display were found on the bodies of a father and his two young sons killed in the disaster. Huge pit explosions, cave-ins and floods devastated communities in mining areas across Britain.
Despite improvements in safety legislation, it was during World War II that attempts to create a safety culture in British industry were born 8). From 1942 the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) provided an accident prevention service for the Ministry of Labour and National Service, producing a series of posters under the artistic guidance of Leonard Cusden. Hazard! featured RoSPA posters, thought to be those produced by the Cusden project, which were probably aimed at the many women workers who replaced the men who had been conscripted into the armed forces. New and inexperienced workers, longer hours and higher demand led to an increase in wartime accidents. The exhibition featured leaflets and posters from the People’s History Museum’s own collections advertising government services to enable people to return to work after serious accidents or ill health.
One of the most emotive issues addressed in Hazard! was the issue of child labour. Traditionally in Britain children worked with their families in the field, at home or learning a trade 9). During the Industrial Revolution some children, especially those in care, began to work in factories away from their families for long hours and low pay. Children as young as four or five were used to clean under moving machinery and many lost limbs or were scalped as a result. The exhibition featured child’s clogs and, while many children would have worked barefooted, the size of the clogs gave visitors a shocking insight into the age at which children began working in Britain’s early cotton mills. Hazard! also featured both the 1805 Health and Morals of Apprentices Act and the 1833 Factory Act. The title and content of the 1805 Act demonstrates the early concern with protecting children’s moral well being rather than their physical health. The 1833 Act established a shorter working day, prevented the employment of children under nine and provided industrial inspectors for its enforcement. While the Act was not strictly enforced, its provision for industrial inspectors set an important standard for factory legislation throughout the nineteenth century. Despite new regulations, child labour was only gradually replaced as compulsory education was introduced. The half-time system combining education and paid work for children continued well into the twentieth century in the Northwest of England.
Today refugee children and those from low-income households are exploited in low-paid, hazardous jobs in agriculture, private businesses and domestic service 10). Hazardous working practices such as child labour have also been transferred abroad to developing countries where many children work in conditions similar to those in nineteenth century Britain. In the exhibition images from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) 11) photographic archive showed boys enlisted into the militia in the Philippines and child prostitutes touting for business in India. In case visitors were to assume that child labour is a problem confined to the developing world, there was also a contemporary image of a child farm worker in Austria.
Occupational hazards exist across all workplaces and leisure industries are no exception. Musicians, sportspeople and hospitality workers risk ill health and injury caused by their job. For much of the nineteenth century football was a violent game with no agreed rules or referees and it was only with the establishment of the Football Association (FA) in Britain in 1863 that players were banned from tripping or hacking. A 19th century pair of women’s football boots designed to cover the ankle and part of the lower leg, gave visitors an idea of the risk of injury in the early game. In 1921 the FA banned the popular women’s game claiming, among other criticisms, that football was hazardous to women’s reproductive and general health. One of the most popular exhibits was a neck brace which had belonged to Bert Trautmann, a German prisoner of war who stayed in Britain at the end of World War II and played professional football for Manchester City football club. During the 1956 cup final goalkeeper Trautmann injured his neck but continued play. Three days later an x-ray revealed Trautmann had broken his neck and he was forced to wear the brace displayed in the exhibition.
One of the most publicised issues in contemporary occupational health is the effect of passive smoking in the workplace. While many argue that smoking in bars, restaurants and hotels should be a matter of personal choice, research has suggested that passive smoking at work kills three people everyday and causes three times as many deaths as work-related injuries each year 12). The exhibition featured photographs taken by Humphrey Spender in pubs in Bolton during the 1930s. The pictures of smoke-filled rooms reminded visitors of a time when smoking was socially acceptable and had not yet been linked to diseases such as cancer or be the subject of health and safety legislation.
Research should inform the public debate surrounding health issues such as smoking and is crucial to the understanding, prevention and treatment of occupational disease. Once the causes of disease are known, they may be possible to prevent by introducing safer working practices and equipment, educating workers and employers, controlling the use of dangerous substances or providing protective clothing. For example, recent research has increased our understanding of the traditional textile disease of Byssinosis. In Lancashire, cotton processes such as carding and combing caused workers to inhale cotton dust, which could gradually lead to the development of the lung disease Byssinosis. The disease was known as ‘Monday Syndrome’ as symptoms were particularly bad on return to work after the weekend 13). Employers blamed Byssinosis on workers’ drinking and smoking habits but researchers have now proved that bacteria and fungi in the cotton dust release chemical toxins which, when inhaled, cause lung disease. By measuring the number and species of bugs and the toxins they produce, researchers can accurately calculate the risk to workers’ health. Such research is key to the future of occupational health and this particular technique could be used to measure bacteria and fungi in industries such as grain, wood and poultry processing so that safe levels for toxins may be implemented across many more industries throughout the world.
While legislation and education have improved health and safety in the workplace over the last 200 years, changing working practices cause new forms of ill health. The last section of the exhibition featured a range of contemporary RoSPA posters. Many of these repeated some of the issues and images, such as wearing goggles and masks, prevalent in an earlier era. Visitors from the occupational health sector lamented that such basic safety messages still have to be repeated today. Other posters recognised relatively new issues in occupational health such as stress, white finger and risk assessments. One of the more recent developments in occupational health is the transferral of hazardous technologies, industries and working practices from countries such as Britain to the developing world. Ordinary working people living in countries with rapidly expanding economies in Asia and South America often have to pay for economic development with their health. Industrial disasters such as the people of Westhoughton suffered in the gas explosion of Pretoria Pit in 1910 now occur in China and other developing countries 14).
Hazard! offered visitors a brief overview of health and safety across Britain over the last 200 years. The story of the country’s health was richly illustrated with the material culture of working people, film and oral history recordings. Until the nineteenth century, working people had few means to protect themselves against industrial disease or workplace accidents. The exhibition showed how positive developments such as compensation, industrial rehabilitation and compulsory education have improved the country’s health and limited hazardous practices such as child labour. However, economic changes such as the loss of heavy industries have also affected working people’s health. As major British industries have disappeared so their accompanying diseases and conditions have been replaced by new issues such as stress and muscoskeletal disorders. While industrial diseases and injuries may no longer create ‘wounded soldiers of industry’15), millions of people still suffer ill health, which they believe is caused or made worse by their work 16).
Lynda Jackson curated the Hazard! Health in the workplace over 200 years exhibition. She has had work published in the BBC History Magazine and the North West Labour History Journal. She is currently National Banner Survey Officer at the People’s History Museum.
People’s History Museum
The Pump House
Manchester M3 3ER
Tel 0161 228 7212
- Carrying the Colours- banners from our collection. Saturday 28 January- Wednesday 4 October 2006
- The Grand Trunk Road from Delhi to the Khyber Pass. November 2006- spring 2007
1) J T Ward, The Factory Movement 1830-1855 (1962)
2) www.hse.gov.uk (accessed November 2004)
3) J A Rule, The Labouring Classes in early Industrial England 1750-1850 (1986)
4) Paul Weindling (Editor), The Social History of Occupational Health (1985)
5) www.hse.gov.uk (accessed May 2005)
6) Prepared by the University of Sheffield, Health and Safety Laboratory and UMIST for the Health and Safety Executive Health & Safety Executive, RR169 – Psychosocial risk factors in call centres: An evaluation of work design and well-being (2003)
7) P Bartrip and S Burman The Wounded Soldiers of Industry: Industrial Compensation Policy 1833-1897 (1983)
8) P Rennie, ‘Modernism’, Eye Magazine (2001)
9) J A Rule, The Labouring Classes in early Industrial England 1750-1850 (1986)
10) R Ebdon Working Children’s Futures: Child Labour, Poverty and Education (1999)
11) www.ilo.org (accessed June 2004)
12) www.tuc.org.uk (accessed May 2005)
13) S Bowden and G Tweedale, ‘Mondays Without Dread: The Trade Union Response to Byssinosis in the Lancashire Cotton Industry in the Twentieth Century’, Social History of Medicine (2003)
14) http://newswww.bbc.net.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/4290997.stm (accessed February 2005)
15) P Bartrip and S Burman The Wounded Soldiers of Industry: Industrial Compensation Policy 1833-1897 (1983)
16) www.hse.gov.uk (accessed November 2004)