Labour History

The State and Gold Miners’ Health in Victoria, 1870-1910

Labour History (2011), 101, (1), 35–52.

Abstract

This article analyses why Australia’s first epidemic of silicosis developed, notwithstanding the accumulating medical and lay knowledge that the disease was caused by dust from rock drills and poorly ventilated mines. Previously unexamined sources show that at key points, where the potential existed to minimise its progress and impact, public policy failed. Instead of containing or mediating the disease, legislative choices fostered its unconstrained spread. Legal, regulatory, political, financial and social aspects of silicosis were subordinated to, and shaped by, the economic interests of industry and the state. Paradoxically, this was couched in terms of protecting workers through saving jobs. At the same time, blame for the epidemic was shifted from factors outside workers control, such as mine design and the machinery purchased by mine owners, to workers’ reckless disregard of purported protective equipment. Response to the epidemic established a pattern that was repeated in other states over the following decades wherever workers were exposed to silica dust.

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Endnotes

1.Miners’ Complaint: The Primary Cause, How it May be Combated: A Reprint of Articles Published in theBendigo Advertiserin February and March 1903, Bendigo Advertiser, Bendigo, 1903, p. 3; ‘Report of the Royal Commission on Gold Mining’, Papers Presented to Parliament(hereafterPPP) Session 1891, Legislative Assembly, Victoria, vol. 5, report no. 151, pp. 561, 668-69; New South Wales Board of Trade, Interim Report of the NSW Board of Trade on the Prevalence of Miners’ Phthisis and Pneumoconiosis in Certain Industries, vol.1, Government Printer, Sydney, 1919, p. 128; Gillian Burke and Peter Richardson, ‘The profits of death: A comparative study of miners’ phthisis in Cornwall and the Transvaal, 1876-1918’, Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 4, no. 2, 1978, p. 150; Alan Derickson, ‘Industrial refugees: The migration of silicotics from the mines of North America and South Africa in the early 20thcentury’, Labor History, vol.29, no.1, Winter1988, pp.66-89;R. Dumett, ‘Disease and mortality among gold miners of Ghana: Colonial government and mining company attitudes and policies, 1900-1938’, Social Science and Medicine, vol.37, issue2, 1993, p.213. Google Scholar

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Penrose, Beris