The (Re)discovery of Occupational Risk: British Workmen’s Compensation within an ‘histoire croisée’, c. 1850-1900

By Julia Moses

This article examines the ways in which epistemic change about law, probability and notions of personal responsibility related to both technological and disciplinary transformation in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It suggests that novel legal and scientific conceptions of ‘occupational risk’ emerged across Europe due, on the one hand, to convergent experiences of economic, social and legal change and, on the other, to communication and observation across national borders. It focuses on a case study of Britain, which is set against a transnational and comparative European context. This article thereby reflects on how the ‘first industrial nation’, and the only state in Western Europe with a comprehensive common law tradition, dealt with these issues. It argues that the discovery of occupational risk was an act of constant rediscovery. Ideas about occupational risk were constantly changing during this period – even after laws on compensation were enacted – because they were inherently malleable and open to reinterpretation.

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