To provide a chronologic review of growing knowledge in occupational medicine relating work and work hazards to health, and to provide a perspective on the lessions learned from the frequent inattention or misrepresentation of hazards.
Many books on the social and medical history of work including epidemiology and toxicology were reviewed, as well as published papers and interviews.
Throughout history workplace hazards and occupational medicine have been shaped by the forces that shape work itself, social evolution, changing modes of production, shifting economic powers, and demographic changes in the workforce. Lest we think these changes are unique to the present time, this paper emphasizes the long-term and inevitable relationship between social structure and worker health. Hippocrates emphasized the relation between environment (air and water) and health, although he has less to say about the non-military work environment, perhaps because of the denigration of manual labor in Greece. The impact of work on health can be traced to the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus, written approximately 1700 BC. The earliest occupational physicians served military forces, and Galen was physician to Roman gladiators. Finger and wrist guards worn by Bronze Age archers represent early personal protective equipment. Writers of the classic period mention diseases and hazards of miners, and Pliny (1st century AD) mentions veils to cover the face. In the Middle East Rhazes included occupation in his case studies (9th century). Paracelsus, and Agricola were prominent, figures in the 15th century, with an emphasis on mining and health. Ramazzini's (c1700) work was widely translated in ensuing decades and is now well-known to all, but its influence between about 1800 and 1940 is inapparent. The emergence of a public health movement in the mid-1800s focused attention on the abominable conditions of many factories and on the living conditions, poor nutrition, high stress, poverty and ill health of the new factory working class, while paying scant attention to specific workplace hazards.
The recognition of occupational diseases in the United States has often lagged by a generation behind the recognition of the same diseases in Europe. We are now into a second industrial revolution led by multinational corporations and information technology, shifting production facilities, and jobs moving around the world in search of cheap labor in the countries with the fastest growing population and the greatest poverty. Occupational medicine must be alert to the new challenges imposed by this revolution.