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Occupational health and safety in the Scottish iron and steel industry, 1930–88

July 22, 2010

By David Bradley

My thesis aims to explore the topic of occupational health and safety within the iron and steel plants in the west of Scotland. The period of study begins with the near-monopolisation of the industry under the Lanarkshire-based Colvilles firm in the 1930s, and ends with its privatisation in 1988. This industry went in and out of public ownership throughout the period, so there is potential for comparing occupational health and safety cultures under two distinct management regimes.

Although the field still lags behind its US counterpart, a number of recent academic studies on occupational health and safety have been produced in the UK. For example, the mining and railway industries and the asbestos and silicosis hazards have been explored by historians such as Johnston, McIvor, Hutter, Bartrip, Tweedale and Morrison. These studies have exposed the phenomenon of industrial politicking between unions and state and management bodies, and the matter of culpability. The body of literature on occupational health history has included distinct ‘employer/employee’ and ‘criminal/victim’ perspectives, especially when the volume of knowledge that employers and employees had concerning the hazardous nature of work has been considered. Similarly, the prioritisation of occupational health and safety by trade unions has been addressed. Studies of occupational health and industry have also examined the concept of male work culture and ‘masculine’ behaviour; Johnston and McIvor have commented on the “hegemonic masculinity” that existed in industrial communities and the impact that this had on male bodies, particularly with regard to work in the coal- and asbestos-related industries. Steelmaking involved exposure to a variety of hazardous conditions, including dust, noise and heat. Therefore, the question of how safe labour in this industry was – and, indeed, how safe it could practically and conceivably be made – is important. For example, some workers questioned the rationality of providing protection in the form of earmuffs in an industry where communication with each other was essential, yet industrial deafness has become a problem for many former steelworkers.

Sources used in my study include trade union records (in particular, those of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation and the Amalgamated Engineering Union), Factory Inspectorate reports, the Business Archives of the University of Glasgow and epidemiological studies. Using these, it will be possible to identify health and safety issues throughout the period under study. Health and safety issues emerging from these include the establishment of safety committees and the appointment of safety representatives, and other industry-specific issues such as protective equipment and clothing. The provision of convalescent care and facilities was also prevalent in the period immediately following World War II. Epidemiological studies have highlighted the risks associated with working in and living around steelworks, with regard to cancer-causing agents and respiratory ailments.

As well as covering documentary evidence, I am also undertaking an oral history project as part of this study. Semi-structured interviews are being conducted with current and former steelworkers across a range of positions within the industry about their working experiences, with particular regard to occupational health and safety. These will involve workers involved at shop-floor level, management representatives and medical professionals such as occupational hygienists. Such testimony serves to complement and corroborate the primary source analysis. Indeed, one English steelworker has remarked that “a textbook alone cannot describe the heat” of working in the steel industry: the oral history project more effectively explores the nature of work in the steel industry and its impact on the workforce and surrounding communities.

David Bradley is a postgraduate student in his second year of study at Glasgow Caledonian University.

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