Thanks again to Antiquus Morbis for the inspiration; many of these terms can also be found over there, in addition to hundreds of other causes of death.
Though the Occupational Safety and Health Act as we [in the US] know it has only existed since 1970, there have been differing levels of federal oversight in the workplace since the Bureau of Labor was created as part of the Department of the Interior in 1888, and the Department of Labor was established in 1913. Though their oversight may not have been as stringent as what we have now, and laws may not have protected people as they do today, it was certainly better than nothing.
So what was working before ANY oversight like? Well, here are a few ways you could have died from your occupation, assuming you didn’t get killed by falling, getting crushed, getting impaled, or straight up getting ripped apart by the machinery (read: I’m not covering industrial disasters today; they’re coming later):
Aluminosis/Kaolinosis - Fibriod phthisis caused by the inhalation of clay dust.
Brass Founder’s Ague - A debilitating fever (often cyclical, like ague) caused by inhalation of the fumes of burned-down zinc, copper, or magnesium, in brass foundries.
Byssinosis - A lung disease caused by inhalation of cotton fiber dust or other vegetable fiber dust (flax, hemp, sissal). Leads to coughing, wheezing, progressive lung scarring and narrowing of the airways, and eventually death. Death isn’t so much due to the scarring, but more because of the highly reduced ability to fight pulmonary infections. Was particularly common in young girls and women, especially those in thread factories.
Caisson Disease - Spinal affection caused by either moving from a condensed atmosphere underground or a pressurized diving apparatus into the ground-level atmosphere again. Often occurs in conjunction with “The Bends”. Known as Diver’s Paralysis.
Cancer Scroti - …this is an awful one. A cancer noted by Percival Potts, affecting primarily chimney sweeps. Scrotal cancer, often appearing around puberty. Unfortunately was often treated as if it was a venereal disease, which wouldn’t have helped anything. Often led to the cancer spreading to the lymph nodes, leading to death before 18. Also known as Soot wart.
Danbury Shakes/Hatter’s Shakes - Symptoms of inhalation mercury poisoning exhibited by the hat-makers in Danbury, CT (the hat capital of the world in the 1800s). Often involved shaking, delirium, slurring speech, twitching, and a lurching gait. Sometimes these guys were mistaken for drunks.
Lacemaker’s Disease - Lead poisoning sometimes found in lace-makers.
Mad Hatter’s Syndrome - Differs from Danbury Shakes in that it more often leads to death, and is more often caused by unintentional ingestion of mercury (rather than inhalation). Involves severe ataxia, gastrointestinal symptoms, and emotional instability, in addition to the symptoms of Hatter’s Shakes.
Matches Disease - Oh god. Phossy jaw. Will do a full post on this and radium jaw soon. Caused by working with and inhaling the dust of white/yellow phosphorous, which was the primary ingredient in matches for a long time. Young girls and unmarried women were the primary makers of matches, and ended up the most affected by this disease. In the end, your jaw basically rots off and you go crazy and then you die. Also known as Phosphorus necrosis.
Potter’s Rot - Known as silicosis today. Caused by inhalation of silica particles often found in clay. Silica embeds itself deep in the alveolar sacs (meaning that it cant be coughed out), and the body, trying to get rid of the irritant, becomes inflamed and deposits collagen around the silica. This causes fibrotic nodules in the lungs, respiratory insufficiency, severe cough, fever, right ventricle heart disease, weight loss, and cyanosis. Silicosis leads to a significantly increased risk of tuberculosis and cancer, as well as mycobacterial infections. Also known as slate-worker’s lung/sandblaster’s asthma.
Ptilosis - Another form of fibroid phthisis, caused by inhalation of feather dust and down dust. In the ostrich feather industry of South Africa (which aside from pen quills, had a huge boom around 1880 thanks to the fashions of the time - feathers were prominent for over a decade, and came back in style frequently), this was particularly prevalent.
Rag Sorter’s/Rag-Picker’s Disease - Anthrax. Should do a post on the history of anthrax soon. Really interesting topic. Rag sorters were the women who sorted rags in the paper factories. Rag sorter’s disease often manifested itself as cutaneous anthrax, but pulmonary (inhalation) anthrax was not uncommon.
Sailor’s Fever - Yellow Fever. Almost always acquired in the tropics.
Silo-Filler’s Lung - Acute bronchiolitis fibrosa obliterans, caused by inhaling high levels of nitrogen oxides. Recently-filled silos have very high levels of nitrogen dioxide (which is one reason why you never want to be in a poorly-ventilated silo). Nitrous fume intoxication causes cough and shortness of breath, followed by high fever, chills, and a more serious shortness of breath. Death from pulmonary edema following the second phase was not uncommon.
Woolsorter’s “Pneumonia” - Inhalation anthrax. Anthrax spores are soil-borne, and when wool is sorted, it still carries the environmental dirt and grime that the sheep (who largely live outdoors) pick up. As the dirt is knocked free, soil-borne spores are also released. The sheep didn’t necessarily have to be infected itself to pick up anthrax spores as it lay on the ground. Though mortality rates from pulmonary anthrax hover around 45% these days thanks to early diagnosis, improved treatment, and (most of all) Pasteur’s anthrax vaccine for livestock, historic mortality rates were ~92%. Pretty awful thing to catch in the workplace.