Historical Workplace Diseases: we've come a long way

A. Richey

The history of work disease is as old as the concept of work itself. This article takes a look back in time at some of the serious and deadly workplace hazards which were faced in the past.

Some of these diseases set precedents in the development of workplace safety changes, and these have been built on as the years have passed.

While workplace disease is an ongoing challenge, we tend to forget how enormous some of those improvements have been.

Employees can now generally expect safe workplaces and if their health suffers as a result of the workplace, compensation is possible. Spare a though for those working in earlier and even more dangerous times.

Phossy Jaw

This disease famously impacted London’s match girls, as well as others working with white phosphorous without safeguards. White phosphorous was the active ingredient in matches between the 1840’s and 1910’s. 

When exposed to the vapour, people would begin to suffer from painful toothaches and gum swelling, and gradually the jaw bone would abscess and glow in the dark. Brain damage often resulted. Patients could only be saved from organ failure through the removal of the jaw bones.

A match factory was opened in 1891 by William Booth and The Salvation Army using red phosphorous, however white phosphorous was still in use until prohibited by the International Berne Convention in 1906, implemented over the next few years.

The disease has now largely been eliminated. 

Radium Jaw

Similar to Phossy Jaw, Radium Jaw particularly impacted the mainly female workers hired to paint watch faces with radium for luminescence in the US, as well as people ingesting patent medicines laden with radium. 

The symptoms include severe abscesses of the jaw and bleeding gums. Bone tumours often resulted. The mouth and jaw were impacted as the lips and tongue were used to keep the paint brushes properly shaped. At the urging of the companies, doctors often attributed the symptoms to syphilis to smear the reputations of the women.

It was recognised in 1824 to be symptomatic of radium paint ingestion, as similar symptoms were reported in various radium paint factories, and a lawsuit by the ‘Radium Girls’ resulted. The case established legal precedents and triggered the enacting of regulations over labour safety standards. As a result, the safety standards improved for decades. 

The problem of patent medicine containing radium was brought to public attention by the Wall Street Journal in 1932 with the headline, “The Radium Water Worked Just Fine until His Jaw Came Off.”

Lastly, a warning. If you collect antique medical equipment, be warned that the bottles containing the Radium Water are still radioactive even though they may have been empty for a long period of time.

Chimney Sweep’s Cancer

Also known as Soot Wart, this disease was the first reported form of occupational cancer, identified in 1775. Prevalent among chimney sweeps aged in their late teens or early 20’s, the disease is a squamous cell carcinoma of the skin of the scrotum, caused by the irritation of soot particles. The cancer eventually made its way into the abdomen where it became fatal.

The disease was largely confined to Britain due to the loose (or absent) clothing worn. The boys engaged in such work also faced other dangers. They could become jammed in a flue, suffocate or burn to death. 

The cause of Chimney Sweep’s Cancer was identified by surgeon Sir Percival Pott, with the carcinogen thought to be coal tar, possibly containing arsenic. Pott’s investigation contributed to the development of the science of epidemiology. 

Lead Poisoning

Lead is believed to have been first mined in Anatolia around 6500BCE, with Greek botanist Nicander describing the colic and paralysis in the 2nd century BCE. A century later, Dioscorides wrote about the madness caused by lead poisoning. It was also used extensively in Rome’s aqueducts, and may have caused the epidemic of gout in the city. ‘Sugar of lead’ was also used to sweeten wine.

The painter Caravaggio may have died from lead poisoning due to the composition of paints, and Goya, Rubens, Renoir, Klee and Van Gogh were also thought to have suffered from lead poisoning (also known as ‘Saturnism’) for the same reason.

Lead was also used in the Colonial West Indies in the making of rum in stills with lead, causing many deaths. Beethoven may have suffered a similar fate through drinking wine with elevated lead levels, and Queen Elizabeth I may have died from her makeup which was a mixture of white lead and vinegar.

Lead poisoning was largely occupationally based through the industrial revolution, however it became an ingredient in paint for residential use, poisoning many children. Although banned by much of Europe prior to the 1920’s, the US didn’t ban lead paint until 1978. There was a further reduction in lead levels in blood following the banned of leaded petrol.

Mercury Poisoning

Have you heard the phrase ‘mad as a hatter’? It’s likely a reference to the mercury poisoning of milliners making felt hats in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was also used in gold amalgams for gilding, and many workers died from their exposure. On the construction of one cathedral alone, an estimated 60 workers died.

Mirror-makers in Venice were isolated on the island of Murano to prevent foreign spies from discovering their methods also faced a further risk. The reflective backings were made from mercury, and many died from mercury poisoning.

An outbreak of mercury poisoning also occurred in a seed packing factory in England in the 1930s and in Japan following industrial discharge into waterways in the 1950s. Grain treated by a mercury fungicide killed at least 459 people in Iraq in 1971-1972.


Scurvy results from a vitamin C deficiency. If often begins with fatigue, followed by skin spots, spongy gums and bleeding from mucous membranes. As it progresses, there may be open wounds, yellow skin, fever, neuropathy and finally death through bleeding. The link between fruit containing vitamin C and scurvy has been known and then forgotten through various stages of human history. Most recently it was rediscovered in 1932.

Scurvy was once common among sailors and pirates. On long voyages, they often subsisted on cured and salted meats and dried grains, and scurvy would kills large numbers of seafarers.

During the 13th century, crusaders also suffered from the disease, however two centuries later Portuguese seafarers became aware of the problem and the cure, planting fruit trees and vegetables at common stopping points.

Between 1500 and 1800, scurvy was estimated to have killed at least two million sailors. During the 18th century, scurvy killed more British sailors than enemy action. 

The trend of horse meat consumption in France may have had a start at the Siege of Alexandria. Napoleon’s army were able to ward off scurvy by eating horsemeat.

In 1867, a method of preserving lime juice without alcohol was developed and the Merchant Shipping Act the same year required that both the Royal and Merchant Navy carry daily lime rations for sailors – hence the term ‘limey’ for British sailors.