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Mining Diseases

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Morlais Colliery Collection, circular re industrial diseases, 1916. Flyers advertising Silicosis Pageant in Amman Valley, 1939. Flyers advertising Silicosis Pageant in Amman Valley, 1939.

The first Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1897 remunerated workmen for ‘Accidental Injuries suffered in the course of their Employment’, but it did not recognize industrial diseases. This was amended in 1906 when a list of diseases was added, and by the 1916 Act these included diseases which affected coal-miners: Ankylostomiasis (miners’ worm disease), Miners’ Nystagmus, Weil's Disease, Subcutaneous cellulitis of hand (beat hand), Subcutaneous cellulitis over patella (miner’s beat knee), Acute bursitis over elbow (miner’s beat elbow), Inflammation of synovial lining of wrist joint and tendon sheaths (Beat Wrist), Ulceration of skin, or any dermatitis produced by dust/liquids, or ulceration of mucous membrane of nose/mouth by dust, and Glanders (an equine disease which can also affect humans).

The lung disease Silicosis was first included in the field of Workmen’s Compensation in the 1928 Various Industries (Silicosis) Scheme. Under this Scheme, the applicant had to prove that he had been working in Silica rock containing 50% or more free Silica, had been ‘blasting, drilling, dressing or handling such rocks’, and had already been totally disabled by Silicosis. In 1931, the Scheme removed the clause relating to rock containing 50% or more free Silica, and provided a Special Medical Board for Silicosis. There was also provision for partial disablement, and for widows. The 1934 Scheme covered miners working at any underground occupation, and in 1939 the period of claim was extended to ‘within 5 years of working underground’. In 1943, all the previous Schemes were amended to provide full compensation for those suffering from ‘Pneumokoniosis of coal-workers’ (including Silicosis and all the various forms found in the Welsh coalfield). This new definition was a result of investigations undertaken by the Medical Research Council.

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Weil’s Disease

Cwmfelinfach miners rat-catching c1913

The conditions underground in coalmines provided a habitat for rats and mice. They had access to water, and food scraps left by miners and pit-ponies. Miners were sometimes even pestered during their meal breaks underground by rodents looking for food. Hay, straw, and horse-feed in the underground stables were also perfect environments for vermin to live and breed. During the 1926 General Strike, rats surfaced from the pits as their food sources had disappeared, the men no longer going underground and the ponies having been brought to the surface.

Weil’s Disease (Leptospirosis), an infection caused by contact with rats’ urine, was a serious health hazard to miners. Underground water sources were vulnerable to contamination, presenting danger to anyone using the water to drink or wash. Surface water could also become polluted. Rat-catching therefore provided an important service in helping to reduce the number of rats living in and around the collieries. Weil’s Disease was included in the schedule of compensation for industrial diseases in 1936.


Further Reading

The Miner, Vols. I (1944) to II (1946)

Ness A.R., Reynolds L.A., and Tansey E.M. (eds.), Population-based Research in South Wales : The MRC Pneumoconiosis Research Unit and the MRC Epidemiology Unit, (Wellcome Witnesses to Twentieth Century Medicine, Vol. 13, Nov. 2002).

Weindling, Paul (ed.), The Social History of Occupational Health (London: Croom Helm, 1985)


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