- Regulating Health and Safety in the British Mining Industries, 1800–1914
After the recent mining disasters in Chile and West Virginia, mine safety and the occupational health of miners are clearly issues of great urgency. Catherine Mills explores these issues in the context of nineteenth-century Britain, when industrial legislation was in its infancy. By comparing the development of legislative regulations concerning the mining of coal and of metals such as iron, lead, tin, and copper, Mills demonstrates very different trajectories regarding the histories of occupational protections in these industries. Mills relies on parliamentary papers and debates, mining inspectors’ reports, newspapers, and mining journals to chart the path of reform. She argues that the economic significance of coal mining to the British economy, the visibility of the dangers to coal miners, and the demands of colliers themselves drew reformers and [End Page 138] politicians to the cause of coal mine safety much more readily than did the more internal ailments and self-sufficiency rhetoric of metal miners. The “marked differences in visibility of hazard” put coal mining on the occupational safety agenda (38), while leaving metal mining behind.
There is much that is valuable in this study. Mills carefully explores the ways in which changing technologies not only created greater industrial productivity but also increased the dangers for mine workers. The very success of coal mining, due to the rate of production demanded by industrialization, brought more laborers into mining, thus increasing the numbers of workers affected by dangerous conditions such as falling shafts and ventilation problems. It was the impact of explosions in coal mines and the numbers of colliers who died at one time, however, that created an active humanitarian interest calling for reform in coal. Even more importantly, coal miners organized themselves to demand change in the 1840s and forced government conversion to at least the principle of regulation. Colliers and inspectors continued to push for improvements in both safety provisions and their oversight. Increasing scientific knowledge concerning the dangers of mining over the course of the last quarter of the century also contributed to an environment in favor of more regulation.
By examining both coal and metal mining, Mills deftly illustrates that attitudes toward state intervention among workers were diverse and contradictory. Paralleling the arguments of Jamie Bronstein on workers’ compensation in Caught in the Machinery: Workplace Accidents and Injured Workers in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2008), Mills shows that while colliers saw a positive role for the state in protecting their health, metal miners stressed their independence and self-sufficiency to the point that they eschewed state assistance. Traditions of bargaining and control over labor practices by metal miners—particularly those in Cornwall—created a workforce that was actually hostile to reform and reluctant to organize formally. Indeed, metal miners accepted the dangers of their work as part of the job, for which their own skill was the best protection. Without workforce buy-in, regulation could not get very far. Additionally, metal mining by the second half of the century was generally suffering industrial decline, and less attention was paid to the health of metal miners. When the first act regulating the metalliferous mining industry came on the books in 1872, it was largely derivative of legislation protecting coal miners and failed to address the problems unique to mining metals, particularly the causes of miners’ pthisis. While safety regulations led to a decrease in mortality for colliers, this was not the case for metal miners, whose occupational mortality actually went up significantly at the end of the century.
Unfortunately, these valuable observations are marred by a rather clunky theoretical framework, lack of chronological clarity, and editorial errors. As is the case with many studies of the development of Victorian state intervention, Mills aims to place herself within the historiographical debates regarding the nature of government growth. Yet instead of staking her own territory, Mills remains in constant conversation with Oliver MacDonagh’s model of government intervention, continually checking her evidence against MacDonagh’s framework...