Dark Satanic Mills


Many people when they get to a certain age start to wonder where they came from. That was certainly true for me so a few years ago I started to research my family tree. Although there were a few surprises my research confirmed that I my family were ordinary workers. I wanted to find out about my roots, about my ancestors, where they came from and how they lived. And as an occupational hygienist I couldn’t help but be interested in what they did for a living and their working conditions.

Halifax Mill Chimneys

Coming from Lancashire it wasn’t a surprise to find that many of my ancestors who lived in the 19th and 20th Centuries were employed at some time during their lives in cotton mills. And working in cotton mills they were faced with a whole host of health risks.

I’ve always been interested in industry and when I was a boy my mother arranged for me to have a look round the mill where she worked. The first thing that hit me when I walked in the mill was the tremendous noise. Levels in weaving sheds were likely to be well above 90 dBA – often approaching, or even exceeding 100 dB(A). Communication was difficult and mill workers soon learned how to lip read and communicating with each other by “mee mawing” – a combination of exaggerated lip movements and miming


Not surprisingly many cotton workers developed noise induced hearing loss – one study in 1927 suggested that at least 27% of cotton workers in Lancashire suffered some degree of deafness. Personally, I think that’s an underestimation. This is how the term “cloth ears” entered the language – it was well known that workers in the mills were hard of hearing.

This lady is a weaver and is kissing the shuttle – sucking the thread through to load the shuttle ready for weaving.


This practice presented a number of health risks – the transmission of infectious diseases, such as TB, but as the shuttle would be contaminated with oil, and the oils used then were unrefined mineral oil – there was a risk of developing cancer of the mouth.

Exposure to oil occurred in other ways particularly for workers who had direct contact with machinery or where splashing of oil could occur. There was a high incidence of scrotal cancer in men who operated mule spinners – and this was a problem even in the 1920s. In earlier times workers in mills had to work in bare feet as the irons on their clogs could create sparks which could initiate a fire due to the floorboards being soaked with oil. Contact with these very oil soaked floorboards led to cases of foot cancer.


And of course there was the dust. Exposure to cotton dust, particularly during early stages of production, can lead to the development of byssinosis – a debilitating respiratory disease. An allergic condition, it was often known as “Monday fever” as symptoms were worst on Mondays, easing off during the week. A study on 1909 reported that around 75% of mill workers suffered from respiratory disease.


The worst areas for dust exposures were the carding rooms where the cotton was prepared ready for spinning, but dust levels could be high in spinning rooms too.


Although control measures started to be introduced in the 1920’s workers continued to be exposed to dust levels that could cause byssinosis. Studies in the 1950’s showed  than more than 60% of card room workers developed the disease as well as around 10 to 20% of workers in some spinning rooms.


A lot of work was devoted to studying dust levels, developing standards and control measures by the early pioneers of occupational hygiene in the UK and I’m sure this contributed to improved conditions in the cotton industry in the UK. I’m not sure I’d like to have to operate their dust sampling kit though – it certainly wasn’t personal sampling!


Today things are different. The carding machines, spinning frames and looms are silent and have been sent for scrap. The mills have been abandoned and are derelict or demolished or have been converted for other uses.


Cotton is still in demand but it’s a competitive market and the work has been moved to other countries where labour is cheap and standards are not as high – Africa, China and the Indian sub-continent. Another consequence of globalisation. Although you could say that the industry is returning to where it originated in the days before the industrial revolution. Sadly, conditions and working methods in many workplaces in the developing world are primitive and controls are minimal. It seems like the lessons learned in the 20th Century in the traditional economies are rarely applied so not surprisingly those traditional diseases associated with the industry are re-emerging in developing economies.


Studies carried out in recent years have shown high incidences of byssinosis in some mills developing countries. One study in Karachi, Pakistan in 2008 found that among 362 textile workers 35.6% had byssinosis. (Prevalence of Byssinosis in Spinning and Textile Workers of Karachi, Pakistan, Archives of Environmental & Occupational Health, Vol. 63, No. 3, 2008 ). A study of textile workers in Ethiopia published in 2010 showed a similar proportion – 38% had developed byssinosis,  with 84.6% of workers in the carding section suffering from the disease


Another study, this time into textile workers’ noise exposures in Pakistan indicated noise levels in the range 88.4-104 dB(A). 57% were unaware that noise caused hearing damage and almost 50% didn’t wear ear defenders

William Blake wrote of “Dark Satanic Mills” in 1804. This was still a fair description of the working conditions in Lancashire when my ancestors worked in the mills. And I believe its valid today in many workplaces in the developing world.


It’s not easy to get accurate figures on occupational health in the UK and so much more difficult in the developing world. The best estimate we have (and it’s likely to be an underestimate) is that 2.3 million people die due to accidents at work and work related disease (World health Organisation). And the vast majority of these are due to ill health



Some occupational hygienists might take a dispassionate, academic interests in dust exposure. But I think most of us are motivated by a genuine desire to prevent ill health at work and improve working conditions. Many of us work in countries where conditions although far from perfect are relatively good. But can we turn a blind eye to what’s happening in the rest of the world?

Personally, I think it’s something we need to be thinking about.

Noise and hearing

The looms have made McDermott deaf. Well not deaf exactly, but they have changed sound, damaged sound, so that sometimes spoken words seem to come from the bottom of a well, and others have halos around them, gauzy halos that slur sound.

This passage, from Anita Shreve’s novel “Sea Glass” , which I finished recently, is one of the best descriptions I’ve read of the impact of noise induced hearing loss on an individual.

File:Spinning room in indian orchard cotton mill.jpg

A ring spinning mill (picture source Wikimedia commons)

In the novel, which is set in and around the cotton mills in New England in the USA in the 1930s, McDermott is a loom fixer in a mill. He has been exposed to high levels of noise for all his relatively short working life. And it is this exposure that has caused him to become deaf. But, as come across in the passage, noise induced hearing loss doesn’t just make it more difficult to hear, it distorts the sound making it difficult to understand speech and spoiling the enjoyment of music and other activities that involve listening

The development of noise induced hearing loss follows a characteristic pattern, although the severity will be dependent upon a number of factors including the intensity of the noise experienced, the duration of exposure, the pattern of exposure, individual susceptibility and many other complex considerations.  Noise-induced hearing impairment occurs predominantly in the high-frequency range of 3 to 6 kHz (3,000 to 4,000 Hz), the effect being greatest at 4 kHz. Frequencies above this range are less affected resulting in a characteristic dip in audiogram charts created during hearing tests usually known as the “4 Khz dip”.

An audiogram for a worker who is starting to suffer from noise induced hearing loss. The “4 kHz dip” is clearly identifiable (Source: American Academy of Family Physicians website)

When a worker first starts to suffer from noise induced hearing loss difficulties are experienced during conversation, and speech on the TV or radio begins to become indistinct.  Some higher frequency domestic sounds, for example a clock ticking, may also become difficult to hear.  As hearing deterioration progresses, further difficulties are experienced in conversation – even in face-to-face situations, speech and music on the television and radio begins to sound even more muffled, and it may not be possible to hear many ordinary domestic sounds.  The ability to determine the direction from which a sound comes is also affected.  Even small values of hearing impairment  may have an effect on the understanding of speech.

It’s difficult for someone with normal hearing to appreciate how the world sounds to someone who has been made deaf by exposure to noise. The UK Health and Safety Executive have an audio demonstration that tries to get this across here.

Once noise induced hearing loss has occurred the damage is permanent, and cannot be reversed.  All that can be done is to take measures to prevent hearing deteriorating further once the  hearing loss has been detected.  So the important thing is to control exposure to prevent hearing damage occurring.

Selecting ear defenders

The use of personal protection should always be the last resort when looking for ways to control health and safety risks. Although this principle applies to ear defenders as much as any other type of PPE, it’s difficult to avoid their use in many industries where exposure to noise can be difficult to control, at least in the short term, by engineering measures.

If ear defenders have to be used, it’s important that they are suitable and will provide adequate protection. Their performance is frequency dependant – like most noise control measures they are more effective against higher frequencies. So when selecting ear defenders for a particular application it’s important that this is taken into consideration. There are three methods that can be used to achieve this, which are described in Appendix 3 of the Health and Safety Executive’s publication  L108 Controlling noise at work.

I’ve recently uploaded a presentation to Slideshare which describes these methods and which illustrates them with some worked examples. It also briefly covers some of the other factors that need to be considered when selecting ear defenders.