Aim. This paper reports one aspect of a larger study. The aim of this aspect was to explore the role of the ‘welfare officer’ in promoting the health of cotton mill workers during this period.
Background. The paper considers one element of a broad exploratory study of the health of women cotton mill workers in the North West of England. The original purpose of the study, which was conducted in 2002 in two towns, Oldham and Ashton-under-Lyne, was to explore the women's own perceptions of the impact of their work on their health, and to find out what, if any, help and support they obtained. During the course of the study it was discovered that ‘welfare officers’, some of whom were trained nurses, had an important role in promoting the health of these workers. The study was therefore expanded to incorporate data obtained directly from interviews with a small sample of welfare officers. The present paper focuses on the issue of sanitary reform and considers the role of the ‘welfare officer’ in promoting public health in the workplace.
Methods. The study employed a combination of archive searches and oral history interviewing. In total, 31 interviews were undertaken between June 2001 and October 2002. The interpretive process focussed both on the ideological power structures which influenced the perspectives of participants, and on evidence for those aspects of participants’ experiences which impacted on their health.
Findings. In considering their health, female cotton-mill workers recalled that the poor sanitary conditions in their workplaces during the middle years of the 20th century had been a source of some concern to them. They also observed that mill welfare officers took a hand in promoting improvement in available facilities. Welfare officers themselves recounted their own concern regarding the poor sanitary conditions in the mills, and their efforts to improve conditions for the mill workers.
Conclusions. The paper demonstrates the role of a little-known group of health workers in the middle years of the 20th century, and demonstrates the importance of oral history work in re-capturing elements of nursing work and experience, which do not appear extensively in the written record. The study's relevance to contemporary practice lies in the insight it offers into the autonomy with which these occupational health workers defined their roles and performed their work.