‘Dancing in the halls of the rich’? Fatal mine explosions and pro-employer bias in the UK mining inspectorate, 1870-1900

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Labor History


Did government mines inspectors in late Victorian Britain display overt bias towards employers when assigning blame for fatal underground explosions? Inspectors were closer to managers and coal owners than they were to miners or mine supervisors in terms of status, background, and engineering experience. That inspectors had more in common with management could have led to favouritism or regulatory capture, as was suggested at the time by miners and more recently by historians. To adjudicate these claims, this article applies the technique of qualitative content analysis to the comments of mines inspectors in their published annual reports. The findings reveal that inspectors frequently condemned employers and their representatives, especially after gas and coal dust explosions that took 10 or more lives. By contrast, following blasting explosions, which typically killed only one person, they usually blamed the miners themselves. The available evidence therefore suggests that any discernible pro-employer bias on the part of the inspectorate was limited to smaller explosions where it was easier to ignore systemic factors and deem individual workmen to be at fault.

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