Monday, 6 November 2017

When Does The Air Matter? by Janet Greenlees

Air Quality and the Working Environment

In this month's blog post Dr Janet Greenlees, Senior Lecturer at Glasgow Caledonian University, looks at  the history of industrial air quality and considers how it has variously been considered a worker's health, community health, and economic concern.

When Does Air Matter?

Men and women weaving at the White Oak Mill in Greensboro, NC, 1909.
Courtesy of the National Museum of American History.
When do people think about the air quality inside buildings? Similar to other health issues, the honest answer probably would be when either they or someone they care about is affected by the poor air they breathe on a regular basis. That being the case, the air quality in working environments could only then be of concern to a relatively small number of people with any improvements sought by labour and their representatives or employers seeking to increase productivity. However, sometimes public health concerns about air quality can apply to both the community and the working environment. How then, is the public health discourse negotiated when the needs of industry can be affected? And, why do certain health issues attract public or political interest and intervention, while others do not? A simple answer might be that the only health issues to attract widespread public interest are those which can affect large numbers of people, such as contagious diseases. However, a closer look suggests regional and national variations regarding responses to public health concerns, even when the same issues and industries cross special boundaries.

An Air Laden with Dust and Dirt

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, cotton cloth manufacturing grew rapidly in New England, America and Lancashire, Great Britain. Both industries subsequently declined, albeit at different rates. Cotton manufacturing was also an industry where men and women worked alongside each other, performing the same tasks for the same rates of pay and experiencing the same workplace health hazards. The air these men, women and sometimes children breathed was laden with dust and dirt, factory ventilation was poor and concerns were raised about the spread of contagious diseases in such environments, particularly tuberculosis. In addition, the noise from the machines was horrendous, particularly in the weaving rooms, and could cause hearing loss and in some cases, deafness. While since the earliest cotton factories, workers had been aware that inhaling dust and dirt made them feel unwell and the noise was uncomfortably loud, it was the late nineteenth century before the workplace became entwined with public health reform, starting with fears about tuberculosis contagion. Public and much scientific belief held that the tubercle bacilli attached itself to dust and quickly spread disease throughout the mill. In the progressive state of Massachusetts, the leading cotton cloth manufacturing state, these fears about TB contagion secured both a legislative ban of a particular technology, the suction shuttle, and selective employer cooperation at improving ventilation. In contrast, and despite widespread belief that England led the way with factory regulation, the tuberculosis risk in the Lancashire mills was debated, but economic concerns prevented both regulation and industrial reform.

Worker Fatigue and Factory Ventilation

The Boott Cotton Mill of Lowells, Massachusetts.
Courtesy of the Lowell Museum Collection.
During the early twentieth century new health concerns arose, firstly surrounding the importance ventilation and following the Great War, fatigue. Fatigue was not simply related to long hours of labour but also to working in poorly ventilated factories. In Massachusetts cotton towns, ventilation became a public health campaign with improvements introduced in many public buildings, including schools and government buildings and extending into workplaces. Some (but not all) employers accepted the notion that a healthy worker was a more productive worker. Ventilation attracted considerable British debate and scientific interest, but while some communities sought to improve factory ventilation and legislation imposed air quality standards on the cotton mills, in reality, employers remained able to operate as they saw fit. Factory air quality was secondary to the needs of industry. The Great War turned scientific, political and medical interest to fatigue research, particularly in Britain. Textile workers were included in the research; however, industrial decline meant political and scientific interest in operative fatigue quickly faded. The same was true in New England. During the 1920s, most of the cotton manufacturing industry shifted to the southern states. Remaining northern firms were more concerned about economic survival than the air quality in the mill. Worker and community concern about mill air quality also declined as jobs took priority. Indeed, wider economic concerns were increasingly influencing the public health agendas of both countries.

Cotton Dust Inhalation

Nevertheless, scientific and medical interest about occupationally specific health concerns was growing, particularly surrounding cotton dust inhalation. However, the physical symptoms of respiratory damage caused by dust inhalation mirrored those of respiratory diseases common to many textile towns, including bronchitis and pneumonia, namely, tightness of the chest, dyspnea and coughing. Therefore, doctors found it very difficult to identify cases of byssinosis, the respiratory disease caused by prolonged cotton or flax dust inhalation. While public concern grew surrounding the widespread dust found in urban environments, such concerns were not transferred to factory dust. There, dust remained an occupationally specific hazard about which middle class social and political reformers had little interest. This was only reinforced by the ambiguity surrounding diagnosis. For workers, dust was an everyday reality that was simply part of the job and unions sought compensation rather than reform. Britain was first to introduce byssinosis compensation for selected male workers in 1941, although it was the 1970s before compensation was extended to all affected workers. By this time, cotton manufacturing had virtually disappeared from the country. Despite individual American doctors and scientists recognizing byssinosis cases, it was 1969 before the federal government introduced compensation for byssinosis sufferers. Instead, public health concerns about dust remained confined to the urban living environment and, when combined with the ambiguity surrounding diagnosis, many workers were left to suffer on their own.

Interior of a Lancashire Cotton Mill with Mill
Workers at their Machines, Lancashire, c. 1890.

Managing the Health Impact of the Working Environment 

Lastly, noise, but not internal industrial noise, briefly became a public concern. Community concerns about specific urban noises increased as the twentieth century progressed. Societies were formed to tackle ‘unnecessary noise.’ However, the continuous crashing of metal-tipped shuttles against metal loom frames in the mills which caused hearing loss in many workers was ignored. Instead, communities, medics and even operatives accepted that hearing loss was a risk attributable to certain jobs, including weaving. Weavers adopted coping strategies to manage the noise, including sign language and lip reading. Indeed, despite the fact that other air quality issues had attracted public interest and industrial reform, operatives regularly found themselves needing to adopt coping strategies to manage the health consequences caused by working in confined spaces with poor air quality. Other strategies included taking unpaid time off, patent medicines, cooperative strategies, switching firms to where conditions were better and exiting the industry. Air quality at work was important to workers, but managing the health impact from the working environment comprised only one part of their decision-making surrounding work, health and community. Similarly, at different times, certain aspects of air quality became community health concerns. Only at certain times did the two environments entwine.

Janet Greenlees

Dr Janet Greenlees
Janet Greenlees is a Senior Lecturer in History at Glasgow Caledonian University, based in the Centre for the Social History of Health andHealthcare. Her research interests include women and work, public health and the working environment and maternal health and she has published on all these topics. The intersection of health in the community and work environment described above is explored in greater detail in her book: When the Air became Important: A Social History of the Working Environment in New England and Lancashire, 1860-1960 (Rutgers: Rutgers University Press, forthcoming 2018). For more on gender and workers’ responses to poor air quality at work, see ‘Workplace Health and Gender among CottonWorkers in America and Britain, c. 1880s-1940s’, International Review of Social History, 61, 3 (2016), 459-83.