"We suffered in silence" : health and safety at Chatham Dockyard, 1945 to 1984 : evaluating the causes and management of occupational hazards, relating especially to asbestos, ionising radiation and masculinity

Taaffe, Emma

April 2013

Thesis or dissertation

© 2013 Emma Taaffe. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.

This thesis is designed to enhance knowledge and understanding of a range of issues relating to the health and safety of the workforce at Chatham Dockyard from 1945 until its closure in 1984. During this period, the Chatham Dockyard workforce was predominantly white, male and working class. Many workers entered the Dockyard with the expectation of a job for life, while others aimed to take advantage of the superior education system to advance to management grades or to progress to further education and/or a career in naval architecture. The majority of workers lived locally and generations of families from the Medway area earned their living in the Dockyard. Casual workers were also employed and came and went as labour requirements fluctuated, while women occupied positions in clerical, cooking, cleaning, sailmaking, ropemaking and, latterly, traditional male roles such as engineering, slinging and plumbing.

A key objective of this study is to establish how dangerous it was to work in the Dockyard, with particular reference to the significant hazards posed by asbestos and ionising radiation. The effectiveness of efforts to mitigate the risks of Dockyard labour is assessed, while the health and safety legislative framework is explored, as is its application to the Dockyards. Gauging the influence of an overtly masculine culture on worker safety, which is central to understanding how and why workers endangered themselves (consciously or not) in some circumstances, is a further objective of this study. In order to establish the masculine culture of this working environment, masculine behaviour traits are explored including camaraderie, provider mentality, risk taking and attitudes toward female workers (especially those working in traditionally male roles). Management strategies are also considered, with Admiralty/Ministry of Defence and local management policies set in their historical and legislative contexts in an attempt to shed light on the factors that informed decision making and management behaviour. This encompasses an account of the comprehensive educational and medical facilities provided to the Dockyard’s labour force in the period.

In addition to the review of relevant secondary literature, the study utilises a range of documentary and life history sources. The latter include interviews and questionnaires completed by former workers, relating to work experiences, culture and the impact of industrial injury/disease. This evidence reveals a combination of causal factors that contributed to dangerous working conditions at Chatham Dockyard. While shipbuilding and ship-repairing work itself could be perilous, the study identifies the following contributory factors to risk: competing priorities impacted on the level of protection afforded to workers by the Admiralty and latterly the Ministry of Defence; masculine culture among workers increased the risk of succumbing to occupational illness or injury; and where legislation and Admiralty/MoD policy sought to address risks, these efforts were frequently hampered by communication failure, gaps in knowledge and poor management decisions.

The study opens a discourse on the history of health and safety in the Royal Dockyards after 1945 and contributes to the historiographies of the use and impact of asbestos and nuclear power in industry. It also adds to literature in the fields of naval, maritime, labour, gender and medical history, while the testimony collected during the study makes an important contribution to the life history of Chatham Dockyard and builds on existing oral histories of the Royal Dockyards.

Department of History, The University of Hull
Starkey, David J. (David John), 1954-
Qualification level
Qualification name
7 MB
QR Code