work and the body

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work and the body One need only look at the toll that industrialization has taken in the form of disease and injury during periods of massive industrialization to understand the destructive relationship between work and the body. As one observer noted in 1907, ‘to the unprecedented prosperity … there is a seamy side of which little is said … Thousands of wage earners, men, women, and children, [are] caught in the machinery of our record breaking production and turned out cripples. Other thousands [are] killed outright,’ he reported. ‘How many there [are] none can say exactly, for we [are] too busy making our record breaking production to count the dead.’ No discussion of the relationship between the body and work can begin without recognizing that the human body has long been conceived of as the basic production unit that has created wealth and capital. Hence, the creation of modern capitalism has led to attempts both to exploit the body through work and to maximize its potential as a producer of capital.

In very real ways, the methods and costs of production have been concretely mapped on to the human body. Broken limbs, crushed skulls, and crippling are, perhaps, the most obvious reflections of the costs of speed-ups, long hours of work, poor lighting, fatigue, ‘red hot furnaces’, and unsafe machinery. Early in the twentieth century it was estimated, for example, that ‘A greater number of people are killed every year by so-called accidents than are killed in many wars of considerable magnitude.’ The profound social effort to devalue the life of the industrial worker came at a time when traditional humanistic valuation of life and limb had placed a huge cost on producers, who found civil courts imposed harsh judgements for injury and death on the job. The ‘death toll from industry’ had become viewed as part of a the ‘untold costs of progress’, and part of a larger class struggle between workers and their employers. Especially in the first decades of this century, as the deaths and injuries in steel, mining, construction, foundries, and other modern American firms increased, the degrading of human life by measuring its worth in dollars and cents had the practical impact of lowering the costs of production. During World War II, more people were injured in the production of war materials than were injured at the front.

But injury is only one manifestation of the way that work is documented on the bodies of workers. Diseases, both acute and long-term, also reflect the changing methods of production and shifting threats created by new forms of social organization or work processes. For example, if epidemic diseases, borne by water, air, human contact, or insect vectors, were paradigmatic of nineteenth-century urban life, then short-term industrial poisonings and long-term industrially related illnesses were emblematic of the twentieth century's industrialization efforts. Devastating lung conditions such as silicosis, for example, gained in prevalence among working-class populations as high-speed pneumatic drills and jack hammers, sand-blasting equipment, and dynamite replaced the pick and shovel, hand polishing, and black powder in mining, milling, foundry work, granite cutting, and construction during the course of the twentieth century. Increase in the incidence of angiosarcoma of the liver, bladder cancers, and brain tumours among workers in the growing plastics and petrochemical industries during the course of the past half century may be attributable to exposure to toxic substances. The diseases we die from, to a significant degree, are a product of the work environment we create.

The horrendous cost of work to the human body has been rationalized to varying extents by materialist theories, explaining the body as little more than a mechanical entity which can be replaced through new hiring, easier immigration laws, or higher wages. Since at least the eighteenth century, there has been a growing popularity of mechanical metaphors describing complex biological and sociological processes, reducing them to physical interactions of springs, levers, molecules or, most recently, genes. In 1748, Julien Offray de la Mettrie conceptualized the human body as ‘a machine which winds its own springs.’ Seeking to impose a mechanistic schema on older theological and vitalistic understandings, he maintained that the body could be understood as a series of intermeshed gears, springs, and motors that, together, created a living organism. This type of reductionism has been a marker in Western biology and has been a continual point of contention.

Mechanistic ideas gained credibility as an explanatory model with the coming of the industrial age. The technological revolutions spurred a common belief that all forms of complex biological processes could ultimately be understood by reducing them to their molecular and physical levels. Similarly, the creation of a body of literature that supported a reductionist view of humans themselves lent increasing social legitimacy to this understanding of life. In 1911, for example, Frederick Winslow Taylor published his famous work on The Principles of Scientific Management, the highly influential manifesto that posited that all work could be broken down into discrete, interchangeable tasks and that workers could be taught to perform these specific discrete tasks efficiently. In effect, scientific management sought to reduce workers' bodies to interchangeable parts of machinery that could be replaced when broken. Challenging the prevailing system of production in which skilled labour itself controlled the speed and methods of production, Taylor, and the industrialists who adopted his scheme, sought to replace the brain of the worker. ‘[U]seful results have hinged upon (1) the substitution of a science for the individual judgement of the workman; (2) the scientific selection and development of the workman, after each man has been studied, taught, and trained, and one may say experimented with, instead of allowing the workmen to select themselves and develop in a haphazard way …’ The implication of scientific management was that the common labourer was viewed at best as a beast of burden, one whose body was to be fitted to the industrial task, and, at worst, as a mechanical part of the production process that could be replaced at the behest of management: ‘Now one of the very first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron’, Taylor maintained, ‘… is that he shall be so stupid and so phlegmatic that he more nearly resemble in his mental make-up the ox than any other type … [T]he grinding monotony of work of this character’ would only utilize men ‘unable to understand the real science of doing this class of work.’

By degrading work itself, and promoting a popular image of the workers as little more than an interchangeable part, management sought to win important political battles in its war with labour. The creation of a workers' compensation system that identified the value of lost limbs, lost eyes, and lost hearing provided further evidence of the way the body at work became a commodity. The adjustments of compensation in court cases according to age and potential earning capacity of the injured worker also tended to link the value of the human body to the work place. Finally, the linkage of private health insurance and Medicare to the workplace and employment history further undercut the autonomy of the body from work.

The body is a map of the insults foisted upon it by the workplace. It is also conceptually tied to mechanistic images borrowed from industrial production. The view of the liver as a filter, or the heart as a pump, the intestines as plumbing, or the brain as a computer all tend to reinforce the metaphor of man as a machine in service to machines.

David Rosner


Markowitz, G. and and Rosner, D. (2002) Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution. University of California Press.
Proctor, R. N. (1991) Cancer wars: how politics shapes what we know and don't know about cancer. Basic Books, New York.
Rosner, D., and Markowitz, G. (ed) (1987) Dying for work: workers' safety and health in twentieth century America. University of Indiana Press, Bloomington.

See also environmental toxicology; ergonomics; protective clothing; stress.