Abstract: Reinvention or Renewal? The Coal Dust Problem in British Coal Mining before and after Nationalisation

Ronnie Johnston and Arthur McIvor


This paper is based on recent archival research combined with oral history interviewing of 25 miners with experience of coal dust exposure. Such testimony, we believe, illuminates the gulf between corporate policy on health and safety and the implementation of this policy at the workplace. Nationalisation of the coal industry in 1947 presented an opportunity to fundamentally improve health and safety in the mines and to address the issue of coal dust disease. However, although the NCB directed resources into protecting miners from the harmful effects of respiratory dust, many of its policies on the prevention of dust disease, together with the attitudes that underpinned them, predated nationalisation. What emerged in 1946—and was to persist until the mid-1970s—was a reinvention of private capital and state approaches developed in response to a compensation crisis in the prewar period. The NCB adopted and adapted this template to address its own coal dust crisis in 1946, and—like the private owners—located coal dust prevention as an engineering problem to be solved by the application of technology. However, as coal cutting technology developed from the 1950s, dust suppression technology struggled to keep up to the detriment of miners' health.