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Occupational Health and Safety in the British Chemical Industry, 1914-1974

Walker, David (2007) Occupational Health and Safety in the British Chemical Industry, 1914-1974. PhD thesis, University Of Strathclyde.

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Abstract

This thesis probes a neglected area lying at the interface between medical and labour history and is concerned with issues of occupational health and safety in the British chemical industry between the First World War and the passage of the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974. The research is presented thematically and draws on a wide variety of primary and secondary source material to reveal the causes of ill health, the politics of reform and the role of the key players, such as the government, medical profession, employers and trade unions. As such, it engages critically with hypotheses in this contested field of historical research. The results of open-ended interviews also provides new testimony to show how occupational health issues impacted directly on the workers themselves as well as on the lives of their families. It is argued that the outputs of the chemical industry had social, economic, and political benefits but that the human cost in producing these was often hidden by poor data collection, a lack of investigation and by the fact that the effects of exposure only became evident after latency periods of many years. Some of the obvious and insidious hazards to heath were addressed over time but only so long as the costs of these measures did not adversely impact on the profit making capabilities of the firms involved. Therefore, working within a system that prioritised profit over health many chemical workers continued to be exposed to hazardous and lethal processes. The main response to this by both the employers and the state was to pay compensation. This was the cheaper alternative to prevention and also had the effect of hiding the destitution that arose when a chemical worker no longer had the ability to sell his labour power.