Labour History

Occupational Lead Poisoning at Mount Isa Mines in the 1930s

Labour History (1997), 73, (1), 123–141.

Abstract

From 1931, numerous workers at Mount Isa Mines began to contract occupational lead poisoning, primarily because the newly-installed smelter equipment had no mechanism for removing lead dust and fumes from the work environment and because personal protective equipment, such as respirators, were inadequate. Further, the company’s policy of employing only those who were young and inexperienced increased workers’ chances of contracting lead poisoning. Although management adjusted the equipment and set up safety committees to oversee the crisis, it attributed the rising number of compensation claims to a mixture of worker-carelessness and to a tendency amongst local doctors to issue unnecessary medical certificates. The government’s sluggish response to the situation resulted in an inquiry in May 1933, after the number of lead poisoning cases had already peaked. The passage of the Workers Compensation (Lead Poisoning, Mount Isa) Act, 1933 and the establishment of a medical board solely responsible for issuing compensation certificates for lead poisoning, were pre-dominantly mechanisms to control the number of compensation claims without necessarily producing a lead-free workplace. This article looks at the events at Mount Isa in the 1930s to illustrate how workers’ health and safety can be subordinated to the greater economic and political strategies of companies and governments alike.

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Details

Author details

Penrose, Beris

Table of Contents

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