"A system of industrial hygiene" : the Commonwealth Government and occupational health, 1921-1932
In recent years occupational health has emerged as a major public issue. Specific problems such as repetition strain injury (RSI) .and asbestosis have received widespread media attention; unions have been more active in addressing health and safety issues; and the escalating financial and human costs of workrelated disease and injury have led the Commonwealth and many State governments to overhaul health and safety and workers' compensation legislation. Perhaps most significantly, in 1984...[Show more] the Hawke Labor Government established the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission (NOHSC) to coordinate a national strategy for improved occupational health.2 These moves have rightly been seen as initial steps in remedying a long neglect of occupational health in Australian social policy. Gunningham for one has suggested that until recently little has changed in terms of public regulation of occupational health since the introduction of factory legislation in the late nineteenth century: 'Not until the 1970s was any attempt made to reassess the nature and role of safety legislation in Australia' •3 Similarly, Bates and Linder-Pelz in their overview of health services in Australia assert that occupational health 'did not become a political issue in Australia until after World War Two' .4 There was a period, however, when occupational health did become a political issue for both Commonwealth and State governments. In the 1920s there were major occupational health achievements in a number of areas.- Vast strides were made in cleaning-up the dust diseases which had been rampant in many sectors of the mining industry for the past twenty years; supervision of the health of Commonwealth employees was introduced for the first time; and in the maritime industry a comprehensive system of Commonwealth regulation of health and safety was put in place. Attempts were also made to address the issue of the health of women workers and to co-ordinate State and Commonwealth approaches to national standard setting for occupational health. At the State level there were improvements in compensation for occupational disease and injury and the regulation of workplaces. Commonwealth intervention was critical in facilitating many of these changes. In 1921, with the approval of the States, the Nationalist Government led by W.M. Hughes created a Commonwealth Department of Health. One of the inaugural functions of the new Department was the 'investigation of all factors affecting health in industry' .5 In order to carry out this work the Industrial Hygiene Division (IHD) and a number of occupational health laboratories were set up.6 The Division and the laboratories were not the only elements of the Health Department with occupational health responsibilities. A Marine Hygiene Division was instituted to enforce sweeping health and safety provisions for Commonwealth shipping and a Tropical Hygiene Division was formed with a vague charter to improve public health in the tropical north so as to ensure its development by a 'working white race'. Both these latter measures, however, largely built on previous Commonwealth activity and policy. The IHD, on the other hand, represented an entirely new direction for the Commonwealth. For the first time the Commonwealth was actively involved in promoting occupational health in Australian industry - an area of responsibility assumed to be a prerogative of the States. This Commonwealth role was to persist until 1932 when, as a Depression economy measure, the IHD was abolished and other Commonwealth occupational health activities scaled down. This thesis is a study of the reasons for the Commonwealth's decision to intervene in the field of occupational health in 1921 and of the scope and results of that intervention up until the the IHD's untimely demise in 1932. As such it is essentially a study in public policy .. I have examined the forces and events which were responsible for a particular form of government intervention and I have also examined the consequences of that intervention in terms of the original objectives behind it. It is my conclusion that there were valuable reforms and that the Commonwealth played an important role in facilitating them. My focus is on the Commonwealth role in occupational health. I do not consider in any detail the States' extensive health and safety responsibilities, through their factory inspection and workers' compensation systems. State activity is only touched on insofar as it influenced or involved the Commonwealth. To date, the States' role in occupational health has received negligible attention from historians and it would be a major task to redress this situation. Nor is my study intended to be a social history of occupational health. Although the problems of some groups of workers - e.g. miners - are considered at length, the emphasis is on Commonwealth policy and activity. It must be said however, that the social impact of work-related illness and injury has also received little attention. There is clearly a need for studies of health problems in particular industries and of the various means of dealing with occupational health problems such as friendly societies, out-patients services and workers' compensation. Finally, it should be noted that this is not a history of all Commonwealth occupational health activities during the 1920s. In order to concentrate on the most distinctive aspect of Commonwealth activity - the Industrial Hygiene Division - other areas of Commonwealth involvement have not been dealt with. Chief among these is the changing attitude to health and safety issues in the work of the Commonwealth Arbitration Court - a development which I mention but do not explore at any length. Nor do I consider the implementation of new health and safety provisions in the maritime industry, administered by the Health Department's Marine Hygiene Division (a brief outline of the development and subsequent implementation of this ambitious scheme is provided in Appendix A). Despite these omissions I believe that an examination of the work of the IHD provides the best insight into the state of occupational health activity during the 1920s. Chapter One deals first with Commonwealth and State responsibility for occupational health before 1921. The bulk of the chapter considers the familiarity of the medical profession with occupational health issues and its role through the public health lobby in persuading the Commonwealth Government to create the Health Department. The activities of Dr J.H.L. (John) Cumpston, the top Commonwealth Health official, and of the Rockefeller's International Health Board (IHB), receive particular attention here as both were critical in ensuring Commonwealth action. Chapter Two examines the role of the long-standing dust disease problem in the mining industry in prompting Commonwealth intervention. While the massive Broken Hill dispute of 1919-20 was the primary impetus behind Commonwealth intervention, there were also dust disease problems in Western Australia and Victoria which needed to be addressed. It will be seen that the 'progressive' Collins House companies, troubled by health problems at their Port Pirie lead smelters and Broken Hill mines, also appear to have played an important part in eliciting Commonwealth action. The first part of Chapter Three investigates the development of government concern about the health of working women and the influence of the National Council of Women on the .establishment of the IHD. The second part considers how war-time research into occupational health and the growth of interest in industrial welfare work facilitated greater government and employer interest in health at work after the First World War. In Chapters Four and Five the policy framework and activities of the IHD are outlined and analysed. The successful tackling of health problems in the metal mining industry is dealt with separately in Chapter Six. That chapter covers the work at Broken Hill, Kalgoorlie, Bendigo, among Sydney's rockchoppers and in Tasmania. In Chapter Seven, the gradual winding up of the IHD is outlined and reviews of the IHD's performance over the past decade are examined. An Epilogue places the work of the IHD in the perspective of subsequent Commonwealth involvement in occupational health, i.e. during the 1940s and 1980s. This study relies principally on four sets of sources. First, and most important, are the records of the Commonwealth Department of Health. Most of the files of the IHD are extant. Next in importance are the minutes of evidence of the Royal Commissions on Health (1925) and National Insurance (1923-7). These are invaluable sources of information on health services and activities during the 1920s and include a significant amount of material on occupational health. Thirdly there is the Health Department's own bulletin, Health, published from 1923 which provides further material on Health Department activities as well as a range of articles by doctors and industrial hygienists. Finally there are the Department's own Service publications, which included a series issued by the IHD, covering such things as the concept of industrial hygiene and the results of specific investigations carried out by the Division. These sources, of course, have been supplemented where possible with Parliamentary Papers, newspapers, journals and other material. There is little secondary material dealing with occupational health in Australian history ,?let alone the Commonwealth role in the 1920s. However, there are some accounts of the work of the IHD which were of assistance in defining the the scope of this study. Most notable are those of Smith, Gandevia and Thame.8 More recently, Richard Gillepsie has published a survey of the Commonwealth role in occupational health from the creation of the IHD up until the Second World War.9
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