You are currently viewing Occupational Medicine up to the Great War (1898-1918): Occupational Diseases and New Medical Practices

Occupational Medicine up to the Great War (1898-1918): Occupational Diseases and New Medical Practices

At the dawn of the 20th century, occupational medicine in France found itself at a historical crossroads. The outbreak of World War I marked an era of profound changes in the recognition of occupational accidents and diseases. This period, rich in legislative developments and medical innovations, laid the foundations for modern occupational medicine.

Estimated reading time : 3 minutes

The end of the 19th century saw the birth of legislation on occupational accidents. The 1898 law was a crucial step, establishing lump sum compensation for accidents, although limited to the loss of wages. However, this legislation was viewed critically by the labor movement and left out occupational diseases.

Neighborhood surveys near unsanitary establishments began to shed light on difficult working conditions. Vulnerable populations, such as miners, children, and women, gradually benefited from specific protective measures.

The rise of industrial hygiene and the recognition of occupational diseases

Under the leadership of Alexandre Millerand, the Industrial Hygiene Commission was created in 1900, marking a turning point in the approach to hygiene at work. Parallelly, education in industrial hygiene expanded, notably with the creation of dedicated teaching at the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers (CNAM).

Significant events, such as the strikes of match factory workers against phosphorism in 1897, triggered significant legislative changes in occupational diseases. The fight against lead white led to the adoption of a law in 1909, despite delays due to employer opposition.

The pre-employment medical examination and the physiology of work

With the outbreak of war, armament factories became focal points of medical attention. Albert Thomas, the Minister of Armament, established a dedicated medical service, particularly caring for the health of colonial workers and women. Special attention was paid to the prevention of occupational diseases in these high-risk environments.

The pre-employment medical examination became a standard practice, aiming to optimize the allocation of labor while preserving workers’ health. Work physiology emerged as a scientific discipline, seeking to understand and improve the physiological adaptation of workers to their environment.

In conclusion:

World War I acted as a catalyst in the evolution of occupational medicine. It fostered the emergence of a professional physician model, combining employer interests and employee well-being. This period laid the foundations for increased recognition of occupational diseases and paved the way for the consolidation of occupational medicine in the interwar period.

In summary, this pivotal era laid the essential groundwork for the protection of health at work, marking a decisive turn towards safer and more ethical practices in the professional environment.

Philippe Casanova

Specialist in occupational medicine and forensic medicine.