Labour History Review

A Hazardous Bargain: Occupational Risk in Cornish Mining 1875–1914

Labour History Review (2005), 70, (1), 53–71.


The Mines Inspectorate routinely recorded errors of judgement, lack of care and defiance of the health and safety regulations by the underground labour force in the Cornish mines. This study explores the relationship between unsafe practices and the Cornish miners' bargain. The bargain was a contract of employment unique to the non-ferrous mining sectors in which individual bargaining and fluctuating ore prices determined wages and management rarely directly confronted labour, who regarded themselves as independent contractors. Supervision was minimal and the men operated with substantial freedom. They determined their hours of labour, provided their own tools, candles and black powder, and were responsible for timbering and the immediate security of their working environment. The system frustrated outside interference, promoted self-sufficiency, and emphasized individual responsibility. The men largely operated unsupervised and independently of health and safety regulations, relying upon their mining prowess, skill and experience to ensure the safety of their working environment. Rivalry and competition were intense and it is likely that the men subscribed to notions of masculinity widespread within working-class culture. This study will propose that whilst acts of bravado and daring demonstrated mining prowess and maintained notions of self-image, unsafe practice can be explained within a context of accident probability theory and notions of 'behavioural reinforcement'. This approach reveals that the rarity of adverse events, the individualized nature of occupational hazard and the premium placed on speed and effort perpetuated risky behaviour.

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Author details

Mills, Catherine