Representing workers on occupational safety and health: some lessons from a largely ignored history

AuthorMichael Quinlan,David Walters
Date01 July 2019
Published date01 July 2019
Representing workers on occupational
safety and health: some lessons from a
largely ignored history
David Walters and Michael Quinlan
The decade from 1970 witnessed major reforms of occupational health and safety
(OSH) laws in Western Europe, North America and Australasia. The establishment
of worker representation in OSH was one of their most signicant features. Largely
overlooked in commentary then or since however was the fact that worker represen-
tation in safety had a far longer history, having operated in coal mining from a cen-
tury earlier in some countries. The purpose of this paper is not so much to ll this
historical gap as to examine this earlier development in terms of its contribution to
better understand worker representation in OSH at the present time.
Measures for representing workersinterests in OSH contribute to improved health
and safety outcomes (EU-OSHA, 2017). In most advanced market economies, statu-
tory provisions on worker representation in OSH are framed within a wider regula-
tory strategy originating some 50 years ago. Such approaches are now the norm for
OSH regulation and are reected in international standards such as the 1981 ILO
Convention 155. Implicit within them are notions of trust and cooperation between
workers, their representatives, managers and employers, together with a shared inter-
est in OSH and support derived from highly collectivised industrial relations. They
are a product of a period when assumptions could be made that the balance of power
between capital and organised labour was supportive of cooperation between repre-
sentatives and their managers. But research on labour relations generally indicates
times have changed, and such assumptions are no longer valid (Frege and Kelly,
2004). As Walters and Wadsworth (2019) have recently shown, this is especially so
in relation to the effective practice of representation and consultation on OSH.
However, historical reection suggests a different way of framing worker represen-
tation and consultation on OSH, which may be more relevant in current contexts. In
the UK and Australia, statutory measures giving workers rights to OSH representa-
tion in coal mining predate other sectors by nearly a century. In this article, we argue
that conict in labour relations in mining and the resistance of miners to exploitation
of their safety were strong inuences on their origin, development and operation. The
David Walters, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, Glamorgan Building, King Edward VII
Ave, Cardiff CF103AT, UK and Michael Quinlan, School of Management, University of New South
Wales Business School, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. Correspondence should be addressed to
Professor David Walters, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, Glamorgan Building, King
Edward VII Ave, Cardiff CF103AT, UK. E-mail:
Industrial Relations Journal 50:4, 399414
ISSN 0019-8692
© 2019 Brian Towers (BRITOW) and John Wiley & Sons Ltd
following account explores the signicance of these historical antecedents in relation
to both current mineworker representation practices and worker OSH representation
in other sectors.
There is an extensive literature on the history of coal minersorganisation, their
struggles to remedy hazardous conditions and the regulation of mine safety in the
UK, and the same is generally true for Australia, although OHS studies mainly focus
on mine disasters rather than regulatory evolution (see, e.g. Galloway, 1882; Bryan,
1975; Church et al., 1986; Gollan, 1963; Ross, 1970; Piggin and Lee, 1992; Dingsdag,
1993). These studies provide valuable accounts of the role of unions, the limited ca-
pacity of mine managers to deliver safety along with inadequate regulatory inspection
by the state and a wider context for understanding OHS in coal mining. While we re-
fer to some of this work, our concern is not to re-examine/reprise these developments.
Rather, our focus is on one aspect of the regulatory struggle that seldom receives
more than minimal acknowledgement in these accounts but which we argue has par-
ticular salience to contemporary debates of worker involvement in OHS, namely,
minerscampaign to inspect coal mines and thereby help safeguard their own safety.
The history of coal mining in the UK, its huge scale and growth in the 19th century
and early 20th century and its subsequent decline are well documented. Hundreds
of thousands of miners were employed in the industry by the time coal production
peaked at 287 million tonnes in 1913 (Church et al., 1986: 588). Accounts show this
growth was in part a response to demand and in part to the development of technol-
ogies, which allowed extraction from increasingly deeper levels, with consequent risks
to the miners involved. These consequences were demonstrated with both the frequent
occurrence of multiple fatality disasters, which fuelled calls for regulatory interven-
tion (e.g. Duckham and Duckham, 1973; Mills, 2010), and a much greater everyday
toll of death and disease, which was emblematic of mining and a constant presence in
mining communities (Johnston and McIvor, 2007; Rosen, 1995; Williams, 1998).
Quantication of the full extent of the harmful consequences of mining was hampered
by the absence of reliable reporting and the limited ofcial recognition of its effects on
health in the 19th and early 20th centuries but embedded in the tacit knowledge held
by miners and their communities and discussed in social histories of the period (see,
e.g. Williams, 1998; Bloor, 2000).
Histories of mining unions also address their role in regulatory reform (see, e.g.
Page Arnotsofcial national and regional histories;
Jaffe, 1991), as do those of so-
cial reformers and other key players. Wider social and labour histories (e.g. Pelling,
1971; Webb and Webb, 1894) also give some attention to British minersOSH and in-
dicate how it was pivotal in the mobilisation of their collective organisation.
Provisions for the appointment of workmens inspectors in coal mines appeared in
the Coal Mines Regulation Act 1872. This was the rst statute with requirements en-
titling workers to representation on health and safety anywhere in the world. Section
51 stated persons employed in a mine may appoint, at their own cost, two of their
Between 1949 and 1979, R. Page Arnot wrote a four-volume history of the miners and their trade unions,
collectively referred to as The Miners: 18891946, as well as regional histories such as that of South Wales
(Page Arnot, 1967).
400 David Walters and Michael Quinlan
© 2019 Brian Towers (BRITOW) and John Wiley & Sons Ltd

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