The body and occupational health and safety: Comparative perspectives on coal mining in Britain and China in the twentieth century

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The body and occupational health and safety: Comparative perspectives on coal mining in Britain and China in the twentieth century
Arthur McIvor (Director, Scottish Oral History Centre, University of Strathclyde)

Occupational health and safety has tended to be neglected in discussions relating to the history of public health and poverty, yet work, as Clare Bambra has recently asserted, is perhaps the single most important determinant of health and well-being in contemporary societies. This paper will compare and contrast the occupational health and safety experience of Britain and China in the twentieth century using coal mining as a case study. Historically, of all workplaces, mining may well have been the most dangerous, combining both a high accident (trauma) rate and high disabling and fatal disease rates – especially respiratory disease (black lung). The ILO calculated in 1994, for example, that 2.5 million miners worldwide were exposed to dust diseases, and between 1988 and 1993 alone, 212,000 were diagnosed with some form of pneumoconiosis – the clogging up and fibrosis of the lung tissue caused by inhaling excessive quantities of dust.

Unregulated industrialisation caused high levels of injury, disease and death in coal mining communities. China experienced the world’s worst single pit disaster (Benxihu, China, 1942: 1,549 killed) and is currently experiencing an occupational health crisis as a legacy of dust exposure (including asbestos) in the intense industrialisation phase in the last quarter of the twentieth century. As Tim Wright has noted, whilst occupational health and safety standards have sharply improved over the past decade in China, coal mining in the modern post-Second World War era has been more than 10 times as dangerous than working in Chinese manufacturing and in 2010 there are an estimated 200,000 pneumoconiotics in the larger state mines (State Operated Enterprises) alone, with deaths from pneumoconiosis currently estimated at three times the coal mining accident death rate. This paper argues that there is much potential in comparative research on health and disability in Chinese and British coal mining communities and knowledge exchange between scholars in this field. Specifically, it is contended that the considerable body of research on the history of occupational health, safety and disability in British coal mining can contribute to understanding the current occupational health epidemics plaguing China (and elsewhere, such as India). There are lessons to be learnt here from studying the past. I also make the case in this paper for the integration of an oral history methodology as such personal narratives can shed significant insights into lived experience, work-health cultures and emotions and the impact of disability. This helps to get us beyond policy-making and beneath the statistical body counts into a more meaningful understanding of what it meant and felt like to be a disabled miner in different historical and geographical contexts.

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