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Bringing the lab to the workplace: labour conflicts and management culture at Almaden mercury mines in the early 20th century

A Centre for Medical History seminar
Speaker(s)Dr Alfredo Menéndez Navarro, University of Granada
Date17 May 2007
Time13:15 to 15:00
PlaceAmory A239AB

Bringing the lab to the workplace: labour conflictsand management culture at Almaden mercury mines in the early 20th century

Alfredo Menéndez-Navarro, History of Science Department, University of Granada, Spain

As has been pointed out, the introduction of laboratory-based approaches into contemporary medical practice reflects not only the pursuit of technical efficiency but also the promotion by laboratory techniques of organisational innovation at the interface between areas of political and administrative action. The rise of the new laboratory-based approach to the workplace ran parallel to growing social conflict throughout Europe after the First World War and to the increasing application of scientific management methods to address progressively more complex problems of labour control. On one hand, the new approach provided Governments with more «impartial» and «neutral» tools for interventions in the workplace. On the other hand, the emerging physiological conception of workers’ capacities and the new understanding of industrial diseases offered by the laboratory became valuable to managers in their drive for increased efficiency and productivity levels.

In this presentation I report the case of Almaden, the most important mercury mine in the world, as an illustration of the new role played by laboratory-based industrial medicine in the workplace. Almaden is a Spanish state-owned company that employed over 2,000 miners at the beginning of the 20th century. Occupational health hazards, mainly chronic mercury poisoning, had traditionally been handled in Almaden by labour management strategies, applying measures aimed at avoiding the excessive biological deterioration of the work force rather than improving working conditions. During the 1910s, the mines underwent a far-reaching rationalisation process, with the imposition of a new set of working regulations that increased individual work load. It brought to an abrupt end to a long tradition of pre–industrial management and labour policies inherited from the 18th century. Social conflict around these issues culminated in the first all-out strike at Almaden in 1919. Both mine managers and government officials soon realised the advantages to be gained by shifting the conflict to the scientific arena, and the labour dispute become redrawn according to medical criteria. Implementation of the new laboratory-based approach eventually played a crucial role in overcoming miners’ resistance to the new working regulations.

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