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This Day in Labor History: May 1, 1877

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On May 1, 1877, the Massachusetts Factory Safety Act, the first factory safety bill in the United States, passed in the Massachusetts House. This bill, as limited as it might have been, is important as the first step toward a regime of workplace safety that remains tragically incomplete nearly a century and a half later.

American work was horrifyingly unsafe in the 19th century. Almost laughably so. Over 1,000 workers died building the Erie Canal. Railroad work was a death sentence for many workers, both the immigrants or prisoners forced to build the railroads and the workers running them. Long after European railroads had developed newer technologies that killed fewer workers, American railroad operators resisted changes that would save lives, especially around connecting cars. It was a Massachusetts railroad accident that led to the 1842 decision creating the principle that if a worker agreed to labor for someone, they took on the risk to keep themselves safe, not the employer. After all, you could always quit and not eat! There were factory fires, unsafe machinery, lead poisoning, all sorts of ways you could die on the job.

Massachusetts was the center of American industrialization in the mid-19th century. It also had more of a tradition of reform politics than probably any other state in the union. So it wasn’t surprising that while the state’s employers were just as rapacious as anywhere else, there was more pressure to make them a bit more responsible for their workers lives. Thus, in 1869, the state was the first to create a state labor bureau. Even if this agency just kept statistics on workers’ issues, that was more than other states did. It issued its first report in 1870 that told stories of child labor and workplace deaths. It sent out questionnaires to employers about their working conditions and it inspected factories. It didn’t really have any power, but still, it represented a level of public pressure in an era where capitalists were outraged by the sheer thought of such a thing. When situations developed such as the horrible conditions in the Fall River textile mills leading to workers striking, inspectors would come down and check it out, filing reports.

By 1875, the Massachusetts labor bureau made a call for the state to pass a factory safety law. By this time, other states such as New York and New Jersey had created similar agencies, staffed by reform-minded people who started making similar recommendations. The Massachusetts legislature took this up and passed the law in 1877. Borrowing from early British factory legislation, this pioneering law required that belts and gears be guarded to stop workers from being caught in them and shredded to bits, ventilation in workplaces, banned cleaning machinery while it was still running (a common practice that led to lots of deaths), and even fire exits. The law directed the governor to hire inspectors who could enforce not only this law but other existing labor laws the state might pass.

By 1879, Massachusetts had an official inspection force that visited workplaces. Other states followed. By 1897, fourteen states had some sort of factory inspection law. They had different requirements. Ten gave inspectors power to ensure that machines had guards on them to protect workers and guarded elevator openings so that workers wouldn’t just fall down the shafts to their deaths and then have their bodies crushed underneath the elevator if it was above them at the time. Fewer states had requirements such as regulation of ventilation or exhaust fans for dust and fumes. Some had special protections for women and children on the job, some did not. Some states also passed industry specific laws–for bakeries or mines, for instance. In the case of the latter, it usually came after yet another horrific incident of mass death thanks to a mine fire or collapse.

Sometimes, the minimal factory inspection regime could lead to optimism about the future. For instance, in 1897, W.F. Willoughby, who worked for the U.S. Bureau of Labor, stated:

“One state has led the way by the enactment of tentative measures, which it has afterwards developed as dictated by experience. Other states have profited by the example and have taken similar steps. The moral influence of the action of the States upon each other in the United States is great. A movement at first grows slowly, but as State after State adopts similar measures the pressure upon others to do likewise becomes stronger.”

Well, maybe.

But even these laws at their most robust were extremely light in enforcement. Only eight required that accidents even be reported, for instance. A factory law that didn’t even require the reporting of accidents is by definition a useless law. These laws were often shoddily written and applying to this or that industry, were unwieldy. There also just wasn’t the required punishments. Massachusetts, again with its reform tradition, was known to have greater cooperation from employers than other states. But the owners greatly resented the inspectors, who they saw as old maids who weren’t real men of industry like they were. There were never even close to enough inspectors, the agencies were underfunded, and the inspectors spent up to 1/3 of the time doing their own clerical work. And while the Supreme Court overturning New York’s law limiting bakery hours in Lochner did not make factory safety laws unconstitutional, it certainly limited their scope and the willingness of courts to crack down on employer actions.

Moreover, as the Triangle Fire, the investigations of Alice Hamilton into the atrocities of workplace health, continued coal mine disasters, and so many other things would show in the early twentieth century, these factory safety laws were simply far too limited to help workers much. They set an important precedent, but it would not be until the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1971 that there would be a real federal agency dedicated to this issue and even that came under attack by angry employers nearly as soon as it was created, making it an agency with very little power today. American work remains far more unsafe than is necessary and the death of meatpacking workers due to COVID-19 is yet another example of our nation’s indifference to workplace health and safety.

I borrowed from the Department of Labor’s pretty complete history of early factory safety legislation to write this post.

This is the 355th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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