Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social History

Knowledge Activists on Health and Safety: Workmen-Inspectors in Metalliferous Mining in Australia 1901-25

Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social History (2020), 119, (1), 31–58.


Worker campaigns for a more direct say in protecting their health and safety are a significant but under-researched subject in labour history. Largely overlooked are the attempts by coalminers in the UK, Australia and Canada to establish mechanisms for representation on health and safety in the 1870s. This push for a voice then spread to New Zealand, France, Belgium and other countries, with unions eventually securing legislative rights to inspect their workplaces a century before workers in other industries gained similar entitlements. In Australia metalliferous miners’ unions followed coalminers in initiating a parallel campaign for the right to appoint their own mine-site and district inspectors (known as “check-inspectors”) from the late nineteenth century. This article examines the struggle for and activities/impact of workmen-inspectors in Australian metalliferous mines, including adoption of the competing UK-Australian and Continental-European models. It finds the development conforms to a resistance rather than mutual-cooperation perspective with check-inspectors performing the role of “knowledge activists.” The article argues this finding is not only relevant to understanding more recent experience of worker involvement in occupational health and safety but also demonstrates the relevance of historical research to contemporary regulatory policy debates and union strategies.

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Author details

Quinlan, Michael

Walters, David