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“It is time for environmental health and occupational health issues to make common cause”

Larrears at work have a history. Let us remember the old Maheu of Germinal de Zola (1885), who claimed to have “enough coal in the carcass to [se] heating all winter ». At the turn of an archive, we meet, since the dawn of the industrial era, hatters drunk by mercury vapors in felt factories, workers in matches whose jaws become necrotic under the effect of phosphorus, cerus workers making the famous “lead white” intended for building paintings, miners whose lungs become clogged with silica or, closer to us, construction workers poisoned by asbestos fibres: this litany of suffering bodies reflects a dangerous work environment for those who frequent it.

Since the dawn of the nineteenthe century, industrialization exacerbated pre-existing risks and, at the same time, introduced new risks, linked to the entry into the machine age and the increasingly massive use of harmful chemical products in the processes of work. However, the polluted and degraded working environment suffers from major historical opacity. For it to be visible, fatalism must still give way to impatience and anger against the intolerable: falling ill or dying from one’s work or, as has been more recently formulated, “losing one’s life to earn it ».

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In the 19the century, the hygienist movement evoked the toxic environment of work, while drowning it in the multiple causes of worker misery: insufficient wages, unworthy housing, deficient food, non-existent medical follow-up, etc. Negligence and “working-class morals” are also set up as culprits: around 1900, when medical knowledge attests that lead is a powerful abortifacient, some deplore the polluted atmosphere of printing workshops, which leads to repeated miscarriages in women typographers, while others accuse English workers of hiring themselves to the chemical factories of Newcastle to get rid of an unwanted pregnancy on the cheap…

An old collective denial

Scholarly or popular, the mobilizations which demand the legal abolition of toxic products in the workspace provoke the crusade of the entrepreneurs involved. They develop a collective defense argument using approximation, even scientific lying, and building public ignorance about the toxicity of their poison: remember the crusade of the Asbestos Standing Committee, created in 1982, to promote scientific research encouraging the use of asbestos in the French economy, while its toxicity was proven.

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