By the middle of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. As the pistons pumped and furnaces fumed, however, often lost in the clang of progress was the plight of the workers within the new factories, mills and workshops. Employers and governments showed little regard for the often-atrocious working conditions in which laborers were forced to toil. Consider:
- 12- to 14-hour workdays were common.
- Wages were low, often at mere subsistence levels. Women typically earned only half of what men did.
- Children were frequently employed. Part of their duties included cleaning and servicing machinery (often while it was still running) that had tight spaces that only they could fit into.
- Severe punishments were meted out, often to children, who were sometimes hung in baskets from factory roofs and often doused with water to keep them awake. Strapping was common, and some children even had their ears nailed to work tables.
- Temperatures were often unbearable, with buildings either dark and damp or excessively hot.
- Accidents were frequent, due to lack of guarding on dangerous machinery or any kind of protective personal equipment. Additionally, the absence of laws, regulations or common rules allowed employers to take risks with no fear of punishment.
Public awareness of such abysmal conditions slowly spread, leading to the passing of laws and regulations aiming to improve the plight of workers. in Britain, the Factories Act of 1833 made it illegal to hire anyone under nine and limited the workday to eight hours a day for children aged nine to 12. The Mines Act stipulated that no one under 10 could work for a mine, and no woman or child under 15 could work underground. The Ten Hours Act of 1847 ruled that no worker was to toil more than 10 hours a day, and the Factory and Workshops Act of 1878 brought in reforms around ventilation, safety and mealtimes while stipulating that no woman was to work more than 60 hours per week.
Monitoring of all such acts and laws by authorities was often ineffective and they were not universally enforced. Horrific working conditions continued to be part of the labor landscape in Britain, the U.S. and other industrialized countries. Fallout from many notable workplace disasters pushed the safety agenda forward, ever so slowly. These included:
- Pemberton Mill, Lawrence, Mass., 1860 – A five-story building collapsed due to the strain caused by the weight of heavy machinery on the poorly constructed floors. The incident claimed 145 lives.
- Courrières Mine Disaster, northern France, 1906 – A suspected coal dust explosion claimed the lives of 1,099 miners. It was Europe’s worst-ever mining accident.
- Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire, New York City, 1911 – Fire engulfed a textile factory where workers were unable to escape due to stairway doors routinely being locked to prevent stealing, and fire escapes that were too narrow for wide-scale evacuation. The tragedy resulted in 146 deaths and served as a launching point for fire safety in the U.S.
Next: The 20th Century