INTRODUCTION TO OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH
a. Occupational health is the science of fostering health and diminishing illness
arising from the individual job relationship. Put another way, it might be thought of as
the science of protecting the health of workers through the control of the work
environment. A worker and his environment are inseparable; they react with each other
in the form of a give and take relationship. Ideally, the worker would move through his
environment, molding it to his desires. In actual practice, of course, this is not possible.
It is more realistic to visualize both the worker and his environment as being mutually
interdependent, each affecting, and being affected by the other.
b. Prior to the turn of the present century, there was little concern for the health
and well being of the worker. At the dawn of civilization, life was largely a struggle for
existence; merely being alive was an "occupational hazard." The passage of time, with
the attendant stratification of social classes, saw the slave class performing all the
common labor. This practice continued until relatively recent times. Mankind's natural
inclination towards war provided a steady supply of slave labor. The idea of actually
doing manual labor was so disdainful to many people that at one period in their culture
law prohibited Egyptians from performing such work. Considering this attitude on the
part of society, it is not surprising that no efforts were made to control the working
environment in order to provide a healthful, safe, comfortable place in which to work.
c. As early as the fourth century B.C., Hippo crates recognized and recorded the
effects of lead toxicity in mining operations. It appears to have been a purely academic
interest because there was no concern shown for workers in the mines then and
afterwards. However, some 500 years later, Pliny the Elder, a Roman scholar, referred
to the dangers inherent in working with zinc and sulfur; he also described a protective
mask made from an animal bladder to be used by laborers subjected to large quantities
of dust or lead fumes.
d. As centuries went by, only lip service was given to reducing the
environmental hazards associated with certain occupations throughout the world. In the
second century A.D., Galen, the famous Greek physician who lived in Rome,
recognized the threat posed to copper miners by acid mists. However, nothing concrete
was done to alleviate the hazardous conditions until 1473 when Ulrich Ellen bog
published his landmark pamphlet on occupational diseases and hygiene. In 1556
Georgius Agricola, a German scholar, described the hazards associated with the mining
industry and suggested mine ventilation and protective masks for miners. In the late
18th century, Percival Pott's recognition of soot as one of the major causes of scrotal
cancer provided a major impetus to the passage of the Chimney-Sweepers Act of 1788.
However, in spite of these isolated instances, very few truly significant safeguards for
workers had been developed.