History Faculty Publications


The ILO and the Regulation of White Lead in Britain During the Interwar Years: An Examination of International and National Campaigns in Occupational Health

Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Source

Labour History Review


Despite the International Labour Organization's (ILO) significance for much of the twentieth century, little has been written on its early history. This case study examines the thin tightrope that the ILO had to walk in balancing the needs and demands of government, employers and labor related to the ILO's Convention No. 13 (1921), "White Lead in Painting.' Great Britain was a leading producer of the pigment white lead prior to the First World War. A government investigation was published in 1915, but measures were shelved during the War. With the peace, the focus of activity shifted to the ILO.

Preparations were made for a meeting to be held in Geneva in November in 1921 to address the issue of painter health and prohibition of white lead in painting. For the ILO, the issue of white lead and its prohibition went badly even before the Geneva meeting. Special interests condemned the ILO for purportedly steering a course that favoured labour and competing pigment producers.

The Geneva gathering was contentious, but a compromise called for the restriction of white lead when used on interior surfaces. The next step was ratification at national level, and in Britain a four year struggle ensued between advocates of prohibition and regulation. Industrial interests eventually secured regulation with a bill that was passed in 1926.

The Labour Party did little to support painters. Concurrently ILO Director-General Thomas, discredited in Britain for his promotion of prohibition in France, sat by idly. Thomas never gave up hope that regulation would fail, but in fact lead poisoning statistics of painters did show a marked decline after 1926.

However, Thomas was prophetic concerning the effects of white lead on painters, for he perceived earlier than most that low level exposures to the material could cause subtle yet serious physical deficits. Something the medical community has confirmed during the past two decades.

Inclusive pages





Permission documentation is on file.


Liverpool University Press





Peer Reviewed