The worst job in the world?

Disease of looking-glass makersOccupational diseases are those associated with a particular profession.  The first to be identified was a type of scrotal tumour which disproportionately affected chimney-sweeps: the connection was made in 1775 by Percivall Pott.

There are many well-known examples: miners developing the lung disease silicosis; phossy jaw, a disease suffered by match-makers, the result of exposure to phosphorus; and mad hatter disease, the nervous disorder which affected hatmakers, caused by working with mercury – the most famous sufferer being Lewis Carroll’s character of the same name.

swing mirror
A killer

Here’s an interesting case of occupational disease documented in a Vienna journal in 1860. The culprit was again mercury, but the quantities involved were far higher than in the hat trade.  Every single worker involved in the manufacture of mirrors succumbed to illness, making the occupation of looking-glass maker a good candidate for the worst job in the world. I find it astonishing that little more than 150 years ago there was no attempt to protect the health of these employees through regulation.

This account was published in the British Medical Journal in 1861:

In a well ventilated room, finely polished marble plates are covered with tinfoil, and on this some mercury is poured and rubbed off by means of a piece of wood wrapped in flannel; more mercury is then poured on, and the glass is placed horizontally on it, the mercury which runs over being caught in vessels. The glass plate, thus covered, must be left for a while, and then stood in the same room to dry for twelve or twenty-four hours.

We cannot even give the workers’ employer the benefit of the doubt: some rudimentary safety precautions were taken, indicating that they knew exactly how dangerous this work was.

No food is allowed to be taken in the workroom: the workmen, who are mostly from 16 to 24 years old, are obliged to wash the mouth out at least twice a day with an astringent water. They work eight hours a day; and, after a period of not more than a fortnight, they must leave the work during from eight to fourteen days. All these workpeople are diseased. 

The writer then outlines the typical symptoms:

In the very first weeks after their entry, grey deposits are formed on the teeth; the mucous membrane of the mouth becomes red and swollen; and, at a later period, excoriations appear on the lips and gums, with ptyalism, loss of smell, hoarseness, ulceration, and swelling of the lymphatic glands and of the tonsils. With the exception of the new-comers, all have ulceration of the fauces. Tremblings of the extremities, nocturnal pains in the head and in the limbs, loss of teeth, and swellings of the bones, gradually appear. 

Some occupational diseases disappear if the worker moves to another job.  Not this one:

These symptoms are not confined to those directly engaged in silvering the mirrors, but are met with also in those who have left the work four, five, or even ten years. Abortion was so frequent in pregnant women, that now no married persons are admitted to work in the manufactory. The children of the former workpeople often present an anaemic and scrofulous condition. In the treatment, Dr. Keller recommends simply eliminative salts, warm baths, and abundant exercise in the fresh mountain air of the country. 

Sadly this is likely to have had little effect.  Nineteenth-century Bohemia was in serious need of workplace health and safety legislation.

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