Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Dangerous Trades

Dangerous Trades; the historical, social, and legal aspects of industrial occupations as affecting health, by a number of experts recently arrived in the lab for repair.

When I pulled it off the shelf I could see its spine was torn, a signature poked out from the foredge, suggesting a broken thread, and the textblock overall was pretty loose. As I opened the book to further assess the job at hand, I noticed a heading that included the word "bookbinder". Curiosity made me pause at the entry and think about it. In what way was bookbinding a dangerous trade?

Bookbinding, along with many trades, changed from primarily handwork to largely mechanized production over time. According to this book, the location of bookbinding workshops was often characterized by poor ventilation, and the "unwholesome conditions of labour".*

Bookbinding, the fabrication of a book, is somewhat distinct from the conservation work we practice here in the lab. Our task is primarily to repair the bindings that contain texts, repair the text itself (pages of paper or vellum, for example), or create enclosures to house the item. Whether we rebind or repair a volume, our knowledge of bookbinding technique informs our treatment choices. Our conservation bench work is largely considered on an individual basis, each book having idiosyncratic problems. This work tends not to involve complicated mechanized machinery or generate a great deal of dust. We have a fume hood as needed and good overall ventilation.

This volume, published in 1902 London, addresses trades in Great Britain. It covers a variety of subjects including child labor; mortality of occupations; specific materials used, including lead, arsenic, and mercury; as well as a number of sections pertaining to dust, where it appears bookbinding's chief occupational hazard lay.

In the book's tenth chapter, John Tatham, M.A., M.D., F.R.C.P., of the General Register Office in London, writes about the hazards of dust in a variety of occupations. He covers among other trades, stone-quarriers, printers, filemakers, gunsmiths, chimney sweeps and soot merchants, hatters, and musicians. In all his findings he compares these occupations with that of the agriculturalist, which appears to be perhaps an overall healthier occupation than many of the trades he covers.

His brief section on bookbinders states that they, "die very rapidly from pulmonary consumption" and that "their mortality figure from that disease...[is] more than three times as high as that of agriculturalists." An explanation for this is also alluded to, as Tatham quotes a certain Dr. Ogle, who informs us that both bookbinders and printers work in "unhealthy conditions, in ill-ventilated rooms." Tatham goes on to discuss other illnesses for bookbinders, and even mentions suicide, occurring at elevated rates as compared to agriculturalists. He does mention improvements in the environmental conditions in many of the trades he addresses, between the time of Dr. Ogle’s study in 1881 and this essay. There was a further note that "since 1871 the mortality of bookbinders has steadily decreased." **

As I glanced over the majority of the occupations covered in this section (and on the above table) I understood why most of them might appear here, with the exception of musician. Some readers of this post may know or easily deduce a reason, but others may also wonder about musician as a "dust-producing" occupation. Upon further reading, it appears that musician shows up on this chart because the author combines cases of phthisis (referring to tubercular phthisis or tuberculosis) with other respiratory diseases (some of those the result of dust exposure). He again quotes Dr. Ogle who says of musicians, "many of whom are of intemperate habits, and exposed by their mode of life to cold and want." This suggests that lack of income may be one possible reason for the general ill-health of musicians, allowing for susceptibility to disease, including TB.^ Musician or bookbinder, these occupations, according to this chart, didn’t bode well for the health of their practitioners.

The incoming repair shelf always contains books covering an interesting variety of topics. Sometimes a quick dip into them expands the historical knowledge of our profession, and reminds us of how times have changed!

* The quoted passages are found between p. 149-151.

** For more information on the history of bookbinders' working conditions, see Bernard Middleton's A History of English Craft Bookbinding Technique Appendix II. He discusses binderies of various times and general conditions of life for these workers.

^ For those interested in public health, including tuberculosis, Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, explains a great deal about the disease and the work of Partners in Health, an organization founded by, among others, doctors Paul Farmer and Dartmouth's recent president Jim Yong Kim.

Written by Stephanie Wolff.

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