How were industrial accidents handled historically?

Today's American workers are accustomed to following stringent safety practices relevant to each industry to ensure workplace safety. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, industrial workers know about the use of specific equipment and procedures to ensure that every workplace, including a factory floor or industrial workshop, is rendered completely safe for employees. However, a century ago, workplaces were not as safe and the result was employees being incapacitated or losing their lives.

To understand when the focus on safety became pronounced, we need to roll all the way back to the period between 1900 and 1917, usually dubbed the Progressive Era. Ensuring safety for industrial workers was an extension of a general idea espoused by President Theodore Roosevelt. During that time, the most frequently reported type of industrial accident happened in steel mills, where employees could be affected by various industrial accidents like a flood of hot molten metal.

There was also significant danger from using various machines with inadequate or non-existent safety mechanisms. Journals of the day reported such shocking occurrences as workers getting caught in moving machine parts and literally being torn apart. An in-depth investigation into the steel industry revealed that in 1907, for every 10,000 workers, about 1,200 died in work accidents. Statistics also showed that immigrant, non-English speaking workers were more likely to die in these accidents.

Another report, brought out in 1910, showed that the excuses offered for such accidents were either wholly inaccurate or exaggerated. Statistics showed that the cause of accidents could rarely be attributed to employee negligence, a far cry from what employers of the time believed. The report laid a fair amount of blame on employers themselves for these grisly accidents.

It was the cumulative impact of these various investigations that led to safety programs being initiated by industrial giant U.S. Steel. The attention from accidents was in part responsible for the company's need to maintain a worker safety record to remain favorable in the public eye. Annual meetings of safety officials became the norm by 1906 and two years later, U.S. Steel had a Central Committee of Safety, which was tasked with lowering the accident rate and making steel plants safer.

Source: DOL.gov, "5. Progressive Era Investigations," accessed Oct. 10, 2014

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