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

By Penrose, Beris | Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History, November 2011 | Go to article overview

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


Penrose, Beris, Labour History - A Journal of Labour and Social History


An epidemic of silicosis, tuberculosis and other lung diseases on the Victorian gold fields killed an incalculable number of miners. We will never know how many, because accurate statistics were not kept; information on death certificates was unreliable; and, as in other mining districts like those in New South Wales, Cornwall, South Africa and the United States, many sick workers left the fields. (1) This was Australia's first silicosis epidemic, but, regrettably, few lessons were learnt. Miners elsewhere, particularly in Western Australia after gold was discovered in 1893, as well as other workers exposed to silica dust, were left unprotected. (2)

Collins and Kippen described it as 'arguably one of Australia's worst industrial disasters'. (3) In doing so, they placed themselves within the growing circle of scholars who have redefined 'disaster' to encompass multiple deaths from a 'large number of individual exposures to a hazardous substance'. (4) In the literature on silicosis, the most obvious example is the Hawks Nest disaster in the United States. In the early-1930s, levels of dust in a five-kilometre tunnel under construction were so acute, hundreds of workers died from silicosis after a short period of exposure. (5)

However, as Tucker has argued, recognition of an occupational disaster 'will not determine how the politics of response will play out'. He identified three interconnected factors shaping response. First, there would be debates over disaster causation. Second, there would be disputes over measures to prevent a recurrence. Third, there would likely be political obstacles to implementing necessary preventive changes. (6) All these factors were evident in Victoria during the period under review. This article focuses on the two aspects of political and public policy response. The first, which has not been investigated previously, is how public policy shaped the disaster. In terms of (protective) regulation, it argues that, ultimately, choices regarding legislation--including not to legislate--allowed the disease to develop into an epidemic. As early as 1870, evidence was emerging that poor mine ventilation was jeopardising miners' health. By 1889, this argument had the support of local gold fields' doctors. Yet, successive governments procrastinated, ignored recommendations of their own commissions and boards, and passed legislation that did not protect miners from silica dust exposure. The motivating factor was the government's desire to support an important, but failing, industry. Additionally, a number of parliamentarians had direct pecuniary interests in this state of affairs. (7)

Twenty-two members of the upper house, the Legislative Council, were directors or shareholders of mining companies. They included William Knox, founder and President of the Chamber of Mines. In the lower house, the Legislative Assembly, 37 members were, or had been, directors, shareholders or legal managers of mining companies, including three of the 19 premiers and 12 of the 19 mining ministers. (8) Nonetheless, even those with no conflicts of interest were constrained by the notion that the financial burden of improving working conditions would destroy industry, the economy and jobs. As a result, political and public policy processes allowed an observable and quantifiable occupational health crisis to develop.

In regards to monitoring and enforcement, the story is more complex due to the sometimes conflicting responsibilities of the mines' inspectorate. On the one hand, its duty was to promote the industry. On the other, it was required to protect miners' health and safety. The tensions inherent in these conflicting roles erupted briefly in 1901-02, when the Chief Ventilation Inspector tried to bring the mines up to legislated standards. His attempts failed, but they sparked a campaign from 1903 to 1907 for the inspectorate to be given the legal power to enforce the ventilation requirements under the mining acts. …

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