Factories offering no protection to their workers might be something we associate with Dickensian Britain. Workers subjected to long hours in harsh, polluting conditions – surely this belonged to the 19th century? Sadly, no. Thousands of factory and mine workers in 1940s Britain were subjected to dangerous working conditions that resulted in terrible preventable diseases from which many perished.
A link between lung disease and asbestos was highlighted during the 1920s, resulting in legislation in 1931 that required factory owners to monitor the health of workers who were in direct contact with asbestos. But the use of asbestos in many industries actually expanded during and after the Second World War – it was widely used on ships, steam engines and in power generating plants. Sadly it would be more than thirty years before the authorities really began to take notice of the dangers. In 1955 British physician and epidemiologist, Richard Doll, (who had reported on the link between lung cancer and cigarette smoking in 1950) reported that men working in a factory where asbestos was present were ten times more likely to have died from lung cancer. It would take decades before regulations ensured the protection of anyone coming into contact with asbestos – construction workers were still handling asbestos products right up until the 1970s.
And asbestosis (or mesothelioma) wasn’t the only dreadful lung condition to be experienced during that period. The link between coal mining and lung diseases, such as pneumoconiosis and silicosis, was known about, but little was being done. It wasn’t until 1952 that the National Coal Board instigated research into the problem and not until 1959 that all mine workers underwent regular medical examinations.
It would take many more years before adequate health and safety legislation was passed to protect workers, not only from lung diseases, but from all avoidable accidents and death.