17 Bizarre Work-Related Ailments
If you spend all day at work hunched over a computer keyboard, chances are at some point you’ll have complained about something like a bad neck, a bad head, or sore eyes. If you spend all day walking around, you’ll probably want nothing more than to take the weight off your aching feet when you get home at night. And if you’re a conscientious student, or if you spend all your working day scribbling down notes with a pen and paper, you might even have suffered from a bit of task-specific focal dystonia—better known as writer’s cramp. But complaints like these are nothing compared to some of the more bizarre, more dangerous, and more unpleasant occupational hazards and ailments that people have suffered from in history, the names and origins of 17 of which are explained here.
1. BAKER’S KNEE
Baker’s knee is a skeletal condition that causes the legs to bend inward toward each other, until, according to one nineteenth century dictionary, they “closely resemble the right side of the letter K.” It was once common among bakers, who would typically have to put all of their weight on only one leg when carrying heavy breadbaskets.
2. CHAUFFEUR’S FRACTURE
Before some bright spark came up with the idea of starting cars from the inside, early automobiles had to be hand-cranked from the outside using a starter’s handle connected directly to the front of the engine. One of the consequences, though, was that the vehicle could suddenly backfire, jerking the handle backwards into the hand of the person starting it and causing a painful fracture of the radius known as a “chauffeur’s fracture.”
3. CHIMNEYSWEEP’S SCROTUM
As if life as a Victorian chimneysweep wasn’t unpleasant enough, sometimes it was apparently necessary for sweeps to take off all their clothes to clamber into the smallest of soot-filled crawlspaces and flues. And as if that wasn’t unpleasant enough, the carcinogens found in soot could irritate the, y’know, most delicate area of the chimneysweep’s anatomy and eventually cause a form of cancer called “chimneysweep’s scrotum,” or more euphemistically, “soot-wart.” Weirdly, this has the unusual distinction of being the first occupational disease ever documented.
4. CLERGYMAN’S KNEE
A bursa is a small sac of fluid that cushions the bones and tendons of a joint. In bursitis, this sac becomes inflamed, often very painfully. And in infrapatellar bursitis, it’s the bursa just below the kneecap that is affected. This particular form of bursitis is nicknamed “clergyman’s knee” because it’s often caused by all of a person’s bodyweight being concentrated on the lowest point of the knee when they kneel down, just like a clergyman praying in church.
5. COBBLER’S FEMUR
The problem with hammering the soles of shoes in your lap all day, every day, for a lifetime is that the hammering causes dozens of tiny, painless fractures to open up in your thighbones. The body is more than capable of healing such small fractures itself simply by re-growing more bone—but when it does that constantly over decades and decades of work, the result can be a pretty nasty-looking bony growth called “cobbler’s femur.”
6. FIDDLER’S NECK
Playing too much violin can cause a localized inflammation of the part of the neck that the violin rests against, a condition called “fiddler’s neck.” It’s usually only caused by friction and pressure, but sometimes—especially when the fiddler is using older instruments—the condition can be the result of a bacterial or fungal infection, which can have particularly unpleasant consequences if left untreated.
7. GAMEKEEPER’S THUMB
“Gamekeeper’s thumb” is caused by damage to the ulnar collateral ligament, the ligament that attaches the bone at the base of the thumb to the rest of the hand. It was first described in the 1950s when a number of cases were identified among Scottish gamekeepers who would dispatch of larger game, like rabbits, by pinning them down and breaking their necks between the thumb and forefinger. This would put so much pressure on the ligament at the base of the thumb that it would tear, causing a particularly painful injury.
8. GLASSBLOWER’S CATARACT
Heating up glass or molten metal in a furnace can release small amounts of radiation that, in the days long before protective eyewear, would be absorbed by the glassblower’s eyes and eventually form a “glassblower’s cataract.” The same condition was once also common among blacksmiths and foundry workers.
9. HATTER’S SHAKES
When Lewis Carroll invented The Mad Hatter, he wasn’t entirely making it up. Back in the nineteenth century, mercuric nitrate was used in the production of the felt used in making hats, and this meant that hatmakers risked prolonged exposure to mercury vapors. These could eventually cause all kinds of physical and psychological problems, including a chronic trembling of the muscles known as “hatter’s shakes.”
10. HOUSEMAID’S KNEE
Back when grand Victorian houses had Victorian housemaids, they spent a lot of their Victorian time kneeling on hard Victorian floorboards. This could often cause a condition called prepatellar bursitis or “housemaid’s knee,” an inflammation of the bursa that cushions the front of the kneecap—similar to, but slightly higher than, clergyman’s knee.
11. PAINTER’S COLIC
While the mercury used in felt-making was sending hat-makers mad, the lead used in paint was causing chronic constipation amongst painters and paint manufacturers, which could eventually become so bad that it could cause a painful digestive condition known as colica pictorum, or “painter’s colic.” A form of lead poisoning, the disease was also once nicknamed “Devonshire colic,” after a number of people in Devon in the far southwest of England contracted it from the lead used to clean local cider presses in the 17th century.
12. STUDENT’S ELBOW
Olecranon bursitis is an inflammation of the olecranon, the outside point of the elbow. It can be caused by nothing more than the pressure that comes from leaning on desks while reading or studying, so, as well as being nicknamed “plumber’s elbow” and “miner’s elbow,” it’s probably best known as “student’s elbow.”
13. TAILOR’S BUNION
A tailor’s bunion is an inflammation of the bone at the base of the little toe, which causes a hard and often very painful growth to emerge. The condition was once traditionally common among tailors, who would spend a great deal of time working with fabric while sitting cross-legged on the floor, causing the outside of their feet to rub against the ground.
14. and 15. TROMBONE-PLAYER’S LUNG and HORN-PLAYER’S PALSY
Hypersensitivity pneumonitis is a catch-all medical term for inflammation of the lungs caused by inhaling bacteria-riddled dust, vapor, or air—and if those bacteria come from the inside of a brass instrument, then you’ve contracted trombone-player’s lung [PDF]. You won’t be alone, though—different forms of the same condition, varying only in the type of bacteria involved, include “sauna worker’s lung,” “bird-fancier’s lung,” “pigeon-breeder’s long,” “cheese-washer’s lung,” and “snuff-taker’s lung.” But as if that weren’t bad enough for brass players, there’s always the chance that you might come down with “horn-player’s palsy”—a form of facial paralysis caused by the nerves of the face being damaged by the high air pressures needed to play instruments like trumpets and trombones.
16. WEAVER’S BOTTOM
Sitting on hard wooden chairs weaving all day can cause ischial bursitis, a painful inflammation of the sac or bursa that cushions the ischium bone in the hip, known as “weaver’s bottom.”
17. WOOLSORTER’S DISEASE
AKA “rag-picker’s disease” or “sheepshearer’s lung,” woolsorter’s disease actually doesn’t sound too bad when compared to its proper name, pulmonary anthrax. First noticed among Yorkshire sheepshearers in the early nineteenth century, woolsorter’s disease is caused by inhaling the bacteria that naturally occur in sheep’s fleeces—which, unfortunately for the woolsorters, sometimes included bacillus anthracis, or anthrax. The disease caused respiratory failure, as well as problems to the lymphatic system, and was more often than not fatal.