Occupational Health and Safety and Organized Labour
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Occupational disease is simply defined as disease which arises from a person’s work. The fact that it has been with us for a long time is illustrated by this extract from a booklet produced by NIOSH. Ancient Roman slaves toiling in mercury mines devised bladder skin masks in a futile attempt to avoid inhaling toxic fumes. In 1979, several workers in Linden, New Jersey, were hospitalized with mercury poisoning, and others suffered classic symptoms: weight loss, tremors, and psychological problems. Federal officials ordered engineering and housekeeping improvements with strict use of respirators in the meantime. Sixteenth century grinders suffered a lung ailment they called "grinders disease” from inhaling silica dust. Today, in the United States, silicosis is prevalent among sand blasters in the shipbuilding industry. Despite the hazard, this country has chosen not to follow the lead of Great Britain, which banned the use of silica sand in blasting operations more than 25 years ago. Medieval scribes probably suffered lead poisoning because of the common practice of tipping their quills with their tongues between dipping them into metallic ink solutions. Today, lead poisoning is common among workers in lead smelters and battery plants and some industries routinely administer drugs to lower their workers’ blood levels. One Illinois labourer told Federal officials he was so afraid of lead poisoning that he took 250 pills every two weeks. In 1775 an English surgeon "discovered" occupational cancer when he noted numerous cases of scrotal cancer among chimney sweeps exposed to coal tar. On the bicentennial of occupational cancer, coke oven workers were (and still are) inhaling the same kind of substances • and dying of lung cancer at a rate of 11 times that of other steel workers. These examples demonstrate both the long history of occupational disease and also its prevalence today. The rapid development of chemicals since the end of World War II makes the problem far worse. New chemicals are currently being introduced at a rate of 3 000 each year. While many will be harmless, inevitably some will be dangerous and have both harmful and fatal effects on those who work on them.