Workplace Safety in Literature


Last September, the NIOSH science blog took a look at movies with workplace safety stories or implications. Someone suggested that they do the same for workplace safety issues in literature—and the NIOSH blog recently rose to the challenge. Here’s what it had to say.

Occupational Safety & Health in Books

The NIOSH science blog notes that books—both fiction and non-fiction—have the ability to go beyond the workplace fatalities and injuries reported in the news or the safety information presented by NIOSH and others to delve into the complexities of how these issues affect individuals, families and communities.

A prominent fiction book to first address workplaces was Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which not only prompted individuals and voters to question their food safety but also enlightened them on work hazards in the meatpacking industry.

The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle is one of the few books that describes overexposure to an occupational chemical. It follows a Hispanic immigrant couple as they venture into the US looking for work. As a day labourer, America had to use solvents to clean pottery without gloves, resulting in significant burns and discomfort.

Occupational safety—or rather the fatalities that result in its absence—is a more common theme. Examples:

  • The 1885 novel Germinal by Emile Zola is about a coal miner’s strike;
  • Digging Out by Katherine Leiner (2004) is a fictional story revolving around a true mining disaster in Aberfan, Wales;
  • Spin State by Chris Moriarty revolves around the life of an alien living through a mining accident on a colony planet;
  • Hazard by Gardiner Harris is a mystery which takes place in Eastern Kentucky. Inspector Will Murphy, brother of the mine owner, investigates a mining accident and suspects something suspicious;
  • The Perfect Storm by Sebastion Junger, the true story of the “storm of the century” and the Andrea Gale, gives a detailed account of long sea voyages, short home furloughs, relationships and the lives of fishermen. It also delves into the training of the Air National Guard in their daily job of rescuing people at sea; and
  • Occupational radiation exposure is highlighted in Madame Curie: A Biography by Eve Curie. The book is an excellent motivating story of a great scientist who worked intimately with radiation, never understanding the need for precautions for radiation exposure. She later died from leukemia. (Bill Bryson in A Short History of Nearly Everything reports that Dr. Curie’s notebooks are kept in a lead-lined trunk because today they still contain dangerous levels of radiation.).

Even recent popular works of fiction address elements of workplace safety. For example, in The Girl Who Played with Fire and the rest of this series, Mikael Blomkvist risks his life to conduct investigative journalism. In The Help, Abilene, a black maid in 1960’s Mississippi, describes her working conditions in white households. And Water for Elephants details the hazards faced by both human performers and animals in a traveling circus. In addition, it’s protagonist, Jacob Jankowski, fears his boss and co-workers and must contend with workplace violence.

Other Relevant Books

Other books that touch on occupational safety include:

  • The Killing of Karen Silkwood by Richard Rashke, which is the true story of a union activist who was concerned about safety issues at a plutonium plant;
  • Muscle and Blood by Rachel Scott, which contains a series of poignant stories about people who worked in auto plants, a beryllium refinery, farms, steel mills and a variety of other industries and suffered occupational disease; and
  • Jane Kirkpatrick’s novel, A Flickering Light, is set during the early 1900’s. Its main character, a female professional photographer, experiences job hazards ranging from toxic chemicals and explosive powders to discrimination as a woman in a “man’s profession.”

This short list barely touches on all of the great books that address workplace safety in some manner. So please add your favourite OHS-related book in the comment section below.