On March 2, 1893, President Benjamin Harrison signed the Safety Appliance Act. This critical act finally created a modicum of safety on American railroads, mandating air brakes and automatic couplers years after European nations had done the same thing. Finally, railroad work would become something less than ludicrously unsafe. And yet, such an act still required a five-year waiting period before taking effect, which itself would be extended, demonstrating the overwhelming power of industry in the Gilded Age.
Early railroad safety was flat out nonexistent, not for workers nor for riders. The story of Franklin Pierce drinking himself to death after watching his son decapitated in a train derailment is horrible but also actually pretty normal for the time. One truly took their lives in their own hands every time they dealt with a railroad. While that was true of passengers too, they weren’t on the trains every single day like workers. These were massive death traps. The first known workplace death on the railroad was in 1831, a slave whose name we will never know, who was blown up when a valve exploded. Conditions of maintenance were so poor that trains would derail at any moment. Bridges were not built to hold the weight of repeated train crossings and would collapse, killing all. The train companies wouldn’t hire enough brakeman and didn’t really care if the brakes worked or not. This led to lots of collisions. Different train companies used different safety signals, which led to predictable disasters. Descriptions of death on the job are absolutely horrifying–people being crushed, having their legs run over and bleeding to death, etc., and yet are so frequent that they begin to numb the reader, as the public became numb to them over the nineteenth century.
Up to the passage of this law in 1893, coupling and uncoupling of cars was done by hand through link-pin couplers. That required workers to get between train cars and hope nothing happened that would crush them between the cars. That….often happened. This and braking were the single most dangerous job on the trains. These deaths rarely reached the headlines. After all, it was only one person at a time. But they added up into the thousands. Moreover, hand brakes were used to stop trains, which were also dangerous. This meant workers climbing moving train cars to stop the trains. Did they routinely get thrown from the cars to their deaths? Oh you know they did. By the 1880s, railroad work was the second most dangerous in the United States, only behind coal miners. The rest of American work was so incredibly dangerous that to be second, and only to mines that dug into decaying carbon that could explode at any time, really demonstrates just how unbelievably awful this work was. In 1893, workers having to use the link-pin couplers made up 36 percent of injuries on the railroad and 16 percent of the deaths. Moreover, in 1890, the railroads employed 700,000 people. That was 4 percent of the entire American workforce. So this led to a lot of dead people. Between 1889 and 1892, the death rate was 3.14 per thousand workers, again, slightly below coal. But that was for the entire railroad–porters, ticket sellers, etc. When you get into the specifics, it gets even worse. For trainmen, it was 9 per thousand. For brakeman on mixed freights, it was an astounding 11.41 per thousand. And that’s the official stats, which are most certainly too low. For brakeman, contemporary estimates by historians put it at over 19 per thousand.
As early as the 1870s, people demanded safety legislation on the railroads. Because of its critical role in interstate commerce, Congress could intervene in railroads. But contract doctrine was so strong–not to mention the routine bribery from railroads–that it took twenty years for meaningful legislation to pass. The automatic coupler was proven effective in 1885. European railroads immediately adopted it. American railroads did not. Why spend the money for new technologies when workers were so cheap. In 1889, the fatality rates on British trains for workers were a mere half of what they were in the United States. This is where the states intervened. As it is today, some states were pro-workers and many were not. But those pro-worker states could pass laws that would protect workers. And many did. That meant that the railroads were now dealing with a variety of regulations that made it a big pain since so many lines ran through multiple states. So finally in 1893, the American Railway Association turned to support a federal law just to create a universal standard that would supersede the states and create a rational system. But still, it still required a five-year lead-in period. Moreover, it was necessary as it seems that workplace conditions for railroad workers were getting worse in the 1880s, not better.
The Safety Appliance Act made it illegal for railroads to run cars engaging in interstate commerce without enough air brakes so that the engineer could actually stop the train safely. Crazy, I know. It also forced the train lines to use couplers that would not require workers to go between the cars to hook and unhook them. Violations of the law would lead to a $100 fine per. But the railroad industry really did hate this and so it continued to push to weaken the law. Even though it did not go into effect until 1898, the struggles railroads faced due to the Panic of 1893 convinced Congress to push the compliance back to 1900. Then it managed to push back the air brake mandate to 1903. Even so, safety adaptations did make railroad work safer even before the full implications of the law came into effect. For example, 1894, 2,837 railroad workers died and between 20,000-30,000 workers got hurt. By 1898, the death toll was reduced to 1,693, with more like 15,000 injured. That’s still absolutely horrible. But it was a step in the right direction. Moreover, fatality rates fell 63 percent from the 1889-92 period to the 1908-10 period.
I borrowed from Mark Aldrich, Safety First: Technology, Labor and Business in the Building of American Work Safety, 1870-1939 to write this post. See also Paul Michael Taillon, Good, Reliable White Men: Railroad Brotherhoods, 1877-1917.
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