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A window into Occupational Health of the past (Part 1)

By Angela Whitehead

Published 18 September 2023

The experience of Angela Whitehead

Interior view of a factory

To be aware of and understand Occupational Health, we need to understand where the speciality has come from. iOH is very fortunate to have this account from Angela Whitehead, an active and proactive Occupational Health Nurse Advisor and iOH board member, who has been practising OH over the last 50 years.


My journey into occupational health was not what you could call conventional. In those days it was generally known as industrial nursing.

There was a lot more of what we called “heavy industry” dye works steel works, shipyards, lots of refineries, busy docks and ports, brickworks, carpet manufacturers, gas works etc. Yes, we still have an industrial base to some extent but it is very different. Most big plants ran their own casualty units, some had X-ray facilities and could deal with basic fractures, and suture wounds and provided a degree of care that was concurrent with GP services. Local GPs were happy to work with occupational health teams, as were local hospitals this was completely acceptable then, shared care in practice!

It’s funny how it started, I was one of the senior staff nurses in a combined casualty and orthopaedic Dept. I got married and I was given Sister’s “strings” which we tied the fancy hats on with but that meant six months straight nights. My new husband was not enamoured with this at all and came home one evening with details of a job. They wanted an experienced nurse to work in an office, and look after shops, a factory and a distribution warehouse. Nine to five Monday to Friday and the pay was much better than mine. I applied and the rest, as they say, is history.

I was based at the head office but visited the shops and factories, mainly following up on accidents and incidents. At that time occupational health was not very proactive.

We had a canteen and restaurant in the office and senior ladies had a table reserved for lunch. I was invited to join them, a real honour. The top brass had the executive dining room. It was a family-run run and the owners were all addressed by their first names, so Mr. Andrew, Mr. James etc. Any member of staff off sick was sent either flowers, ladies, or a bowl of fruit, gentlemen. I was in charge of this and first thing every morning I phoned the head of each dept to get the names of staff absent from work. For those off long term, I used to do a home visit, an early version of case management. I was driven by the chauffeur in the company Rolls. Shades of Are You Being Served! At Christmas, I was off in the Rolls again with hampers for retired staff.

The Robens Report 1972 laid the groundwork for The Health and Safety at Work etc Act in 1974. I was so privileged to start work at the same time. I was fortunate that my local employment nursing adviser helped start me on a journey of education. At that time you could do a certificate in Industrial Health, day release over several months, some of it shared with trainee medical officers, which the OH Physicians were called at that time.

As I moved organisations, I gained experience. In a carpet factory, all staff working in the weaving shed lost their hearing due to the extreme noise, this was accepted. Local pubs had their own version of sign language to accommodate this. The provision of hearing protection was on the horizon. When it was introduced, it was strongly resisted by staff and unions. Staff did not like it, hot and heavy and unions were hugely suspicious. Due to the very damp atmosphere, there was an outbreak of ear disorders, mainly otitis media. We started to work with ear defender companies to improve airflow, and have some form of cloth covering but still keep attenuation. No hearing tests were in place at that time which would have been interesting as all long-term staff were already deaf. Baseline testing was being introduced for apprentices but had to be carried out at hospital depts until suitable equipment could be found, purchased and staff trained. 

Serious accidents were mercifully rare but we did have an emergency amputation kit in the surgery in case someone was trapped in the weaving looms, fortunately, I never had the occasion to use it. It was at this time, during a serious incident with a member of staff, that I realised how lonely it could be without the backup of A&E colleagues. It seemed to be a very long time before the ambulance staff arrived. Fortunately, the individual survived, I know the first aiders and I had done all we could but it might have ended differently. There was no such thing as debriefing in those days so we had coffee and talked instead.

The factory was extensive, with raw material areas, pattern storage, weaving sheds, drying areas, and new carpet storage. Carpets were moved by small trucks towing huge reels on wheels. If I needed to get anywhere in a hurry, I was the one member of staff granted permission to flag them down and hop on for a lift.

 I had a surgery and an office. the office was on the same corridor as the board room, one of my key responsibilities was to ensure that the board room drinks cabinet was always fully stocked with a range of alcohol and mixers. I was also in charge of selling overalls and special shoes and had to make sure stock was ordered and the books balanced every month.

The company supplied carpets to The Houses of Parliament, Cunard and several of the royal palaces. In those days patterns were kept on cards run through machines, no computers in those days. Hence “pattern cards” describe something that never changes. New patterns had to be cut by hand on a special machine that punched through stiff card, there were a team of ladies who specialised in this, and most developed wrist pain as a result. It was not called repetitive strain injury at that point

 Most carpets were backed by jute, which needed to be kept damp. As well as noise, the weaving shed was warm and moist. This helped with wool too. Synthetic materials were beginning to come in which would lead to significant changes.    

My next role was with the gas industry. North Sea gas was coming online and the Queen formally opened St Fergus. Pipelines were being built, and conversion was taking place.

Keep an eye out for the next instalment from Angela…..

Angela started in what was then industrial nursing in Glasgow in 1974, with a clothing company which had shops, factories, distribution network and a busy head office. She has worked in different types of operations from heavy industry, modern technology, public sector, NHS, HSE and finally oil and gas. This was interspersed with spells in general practice and district.

During that time she acquired a husband and two sons and moved from Scotland to Wales and finally England. Along the way she completed many different levels of training culminating in an MSc in Health & Safety.

She has enjoyed a long and happy career in a specialism she loves and continues to work on an ad hoc basis. Angela is an original member of the association.

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