Skip to page content
Bookmark and Share

2. Factory Inspection Legislation

Besides publicizing occupational safety and health problems, many state labor bureaus explicitly supported remedial legislation. As early as 1870 Massachusetts, in the first annual report of its labor statistics bureau, concluded that:

“There is a peril to life and limb from unguarded machinery, and peril to health from lack of ventilation, and insufficiency of means of escape in case of fire, in many establishments…. These evils can only be prevented by detailed enactment.”

This included establishment of a factory inspection system. In 1875 the Massachusetts bureau again called for legislation and included a draft law covering machine guarding, fire protection, elevator safety and adequate ventilation. The New York labor statistics bureau pointed out that the safety and health information the states published justified legislation to protect workers. The 1890 report of the New Jersey bureau noted labor agitation for healthier conditions in factories and stressed that "whatever tends to increase the constructive power of the labor force, or prolong the life of the individual worker, operates for the general good." The bureau hoped that its reports on working conditions would stimulate general interest and arouse public opinion to demand action. "It is not probable," the report concluded, "that any radical changes will occur, or effective remedies be applied, unless there are some drastic measures adopted by the State." In 1891 the Maryland chief of labor statistics called for creation of a factory inspection system in his state.29

Not every state was for factory legislation. The state of Connecticut had laws in the 1880s on fire safety and railroad safety, but the commissioner of labor statistics did not believe that a factory inspection and safety and law was warranted. He felt that there were more serious occupational safety and health threats in non factory work. He also feared that a rigid system of factory inspection would arouse opposition from employers and would be inferior to the companies' own ongoing inspections. He pointed out that "There are a great many things which a man will submit to voluntarily but which he will denounce as tyranny" if compelled to do them.30

The precedent and model for factory legislation had already developed in England. Her industrial revolution far predated that in the United States. By 1802 working and living conditions for English textile mill workers, many of whom were young apprentices, had become so bad that humanitarian mill owner Sir Robert Peal persuaded the Parliament to pass the world's first factory act. This limited law required mill owners to protect the health and morals of pauper apprentices, set a limit of 12 hours of work a day, banned night work, and required the employer to provide them with adequate clothing. While the 1802 law was virtually ineffective because there was no provision for enforcement, it opened the door for further enactment. England steadily expanded protections through a series of factory acts, at first applying only to women and children, but gradually including all workers. It established the world's first factory inspection system in 1833. By the 1870s England required that factories be clean, well ventilated, and not overcrowded, and that hoists, exposed gears, and other dangerous devices be fenced or railed off. Concerned Americans were well aware of the English factory acts and the widely imitated factory inspection system.31

Government reports and foreign precedents helped, but it took political pressure to wring protective laws from the state legislatures. Organized labor provided most of the political muscle to do this. Workers in the late 19th century had retained a good deal of power and status in their local communities. This translated into political power in the state capitals.32 In addition to publicizing occupational accidents and dangers in its journals, organized labor became a powerful champion of efforts to protect workers on the job. The Carpenter, in its July 1881 issue, conceded that businessmen risked capital, but pointed out that:

“The workers have their risks of life and limb, of body and health.... Think of how many are crippled and maimed, who are shattered in constitutions and broken down for life in the service of capital! Many a time have we seen our fellow craftsmen fall from ricketty scaffolds and dizzying heights to be carried off ... more dead than alive.”

Years earlier workers' organizations had begun agitating for laws to limit hours worked and to protect woman and child workers, though not initially as safety and health measures. Organized efforts to shorten the workday from the sunup to sundown system dictated by the needs of agriculture had begun as early as the 1820s. The "ten hour" movement that sprang up was based partially on the argument that workers needed time in order to be well informed citizens. Health considerations did not become significant until after the Industrial Revolution took hold, but then they became the primary justification.33 While the shorter hours movements had only limited success through legislation, in 1840 they pressured President Martin Van Burin to shorten the workday for employees on federal projects to 10 hours.34 Women, who comprised a large part of the industrial work force, had been prominent in the early 10-hour movement and in 1852 Ohio passed an ineffective law limiting women's hours. A few other states followed Ohio's lead. Among them was Massachusetts with a 10-hour limit for women in 1874. One of the arguments raised there was that the law would benefit women's health. Eventually the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1908, in the case of Muller vs. Oregon, that hours laws for women were constitutional as health measures.35 Children were generally considered wards of the state, and efforts to set a minimum age for employment resulted in legislation as early as 1832, though, as with women's hours laws, the early child labor laws were not very effective.36

As early as the 1830s labor groups investigated shop safety and health conditions and published accounts of them. In 1868 the National Labor Union convention passed a resolution deploring the "neglect of employers generally for the protection of human life.”37 The Knights of Labor, which was the dominant labor organization of the 1870s and early 1880s, and other labor groups were the driving force behind the establishment of state labor statistics bureaus and provided support for their investigations.38 While unions had little public support in seeking laws regulating wages and hours of work, "From the first," wrote United Mine Workers president John Mitchell, "public sympathy has been with the working men" in seeking factory safety and health laws.39 As the American Federation of Labor gained strength after its founding in 1881, the state federations that sprang up began to lobby the state legislatures actively on many matters, including job safety and health.40

Massachusetts passed the first factory safety and health law in America in 1877 and established an inspection force in 1879. Other Northern industrial states soon followed and fourteen states had similar factory acts on their books by 1897. Ten of those states gave their inspectors authority to require guarding of machinery; eight banned cleaning of moving machinery by women or children; ten required guarding of elevator openings; eight required regulation of ventilation and sanitary conditions; seven required exhaust fans for dust and fumes; eight required reporting of accidents. In addition, many inspectors enforced child labor laws, wage payment laws, and other requirements not related to safety and health. Initially, six of the 14 states gave the existing state bureaus of labor the duties of inspecting. The others provided separate departments for factory inspectors. Eventually most labor bureaus were relieved of this duty. In addition to general factory laws, numerous specialized laws passed applying in such areas as mining, sweat shops, bakeries and construction.41

While to one political scientist writing in 1908 the factory laws seemed "a mass of unconnected attempts" to do for working people "a something as yet undefined by court or legislature," there was a pattern to its development.42 U.S. Bureau of Labor investigator W.F. Willoughby summarized the growth of factory legislation to 1897:

“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.”43

Through the influence of other states and internal pressures from workers and reform groups, the initial gaps between state safety and health laws steadily narrowed.

The Massachusetts factory act passed after repeated calls for legislation from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and persistent agitation by organized labor. This historic act was imitated by many other states, portions of it even appearing verbatim in their laws. Massachusetts, in turn, borrowed heavily from British factory legislation. Titled "An act relating to the inspection of factories and public buildings," it laid out quite broad requirements for the protection of workers on the job. It required that belts, shafts and gears be guarded adequately; it banned cleaning of machinery while it was in motion; it required ventilation as needed; elevators and hoist ways had to be partitioned off; there had to be adequate emergency and fire exits. The law also directed the governor to appoint members of the state detective force to act as inspectors and enforce all state labor laws, not just the factory act. This led to poor enforcement initially, but in 1879 the detective force was abolished. In its place was established a district police force, at least two of whose members were to act as factory inspectors. The governor immediately appointed three inspectors, making 1879 the year in which factory in inspection really began in Massachusetts.44

Successive laws in the 1880s and 1890s enlarged the scope of factory inspection in Massachusetts and increased the staff that carried it out. In 1880, inspection was extended to include "mercantile establishments." An 1886 law provided that in any factory with steam driven machinery, the inspector could order the proprietor to install a bell, speaking tube, or other means of communication with the plant engine so that machinery could be shut off quickly in an emergency. The next year a law was enacted requiring those factories be kept in proper sanitary condition. Factory inspectors were to notify local boards of health about any unsanitary conditions not covered by this law. Also in 1887, a new law on ventilation empowered inspectors to order the installation of fans or other apparatus in factories with five or more employees, provided the cost to the employer was not excessive. A third law in 1887 banned child workers under 15 from cleaning machinery in motion. In 1891 the first of a series of laws regulating tenement workshops was enacted, with the goal of choking off growth of the "sweating system" of garment manufacture. As this whole body of law built up in Massachusetts, it became unwieldy, and periodically it was rectified and the requirements refined.45

In the neighboring state of Connecticut there was no factory inspection law until 1887, ten years after the Massachusetts act. The Knights of Labor had begun calling for legislation in 1885 to deal with industrial accidents. However, as we have seen, the commissioner of labor statistics opposed factory legislation and manufacturers and others successfully fought off passage. In 1886 several factory inspection bills were introduced in the legislature and the labor committee reported out a bill. Opponents decried the expense to the state of performing inspections and the danger of trade secrets being revealed through inspections. They also argued that inspections would weaken employers' efforts to voluntarily reduce accidents. Again, there was no legislation. Finally, in 1887, principally through the support of the Knights of Labor, the state enacted a factory inspection law modeled on the Massachusetts act. It provided for appointment of a factory inspector who would visit all workplaces where machinery was used. Factories were to be clean and well ventilated, dangerous moving parts guarded, doors and hatchways protected, and so on. Violators had four weeks to comply with an inspector's order. If they failed to do so they were liable for up to $500 in fines. An 1893 law beefed up the ventilation requirement, allowing the inspector to order the installation of dust removal devices. In 1899 the state passed a law requiring adequate light in workrooms. The whole inspection program was severely hampered by the fact that, even though there were funds available for the appointment of special agents as assistant inspectors, in 1897, ten years after initial enactment, there was still only one factory inspector.46

The first state to follow Massachusetts' lead was New Jersey, which established a factory inspection service in 1883 for woman and child labor. With strong support from the state labor federation and a sympathetic governor, a full factory safety and health enforcement system emerged in the 1880s. In 1884 the inspection force was increased from one to three. In 1885 the legislature passed a general factory act which set detailed safety and health requirements for the inspectors to enforce. Over the next two years this act was amended to add a number of items, such as requiring an employer to report all serious accidents to the state inspector, ordering additional fire safety precautions, and forbidding children under 16 from taking jobs that were considered hazardous to their health, unless they had a doctor's certificate of fitness for such work. In the 1890s the duties of mine inspection, which was done in most states by a separate inspection force, and regulating the sweating system were given to the inspection force, which by 1897 had been expanded to seven inspectors.47

Heavily industrialized New York state passed a factory inspection law in 1886 that applied mainly, as with New Jersey's 1883 law, to woman and child labor. In New York, too, the scope of factory legislation gradually expanded. The inspectors themselves played an important role in that expansion. The annual reports of the factory inspector regularly recommended changes and improvements in many provisions of the laws, including safety and health. In 1886, the first year of operations of the inspection law, the inspectors called on the legislature to prohibit women and children from cleaning machinery in motion, to require protection for elevators and hoistways, to see that adequate air space was provided for employees, and to require employers to report injuries to the factory inspector. Many suggestions such as these were adopted in an 1887 statute revising the 1886 law. The inspection force was also increased from two to eight. The 1887 report noted that Massachusetts required means of communication between plant and engine room to allow quick cut off in an emergency and called on the legislature to adopt such a measure for New York. The report also called for a law requiring the guarding of saws, belts, gears and other machinery. It complained that the lack of such authority meant that inspectors "must now pass silently by plenty of dangerous machinery which could be rendered comparatively harmless." One reason the inspectors pressed the legislature for new authority was that complaints frequently came to them about areas over which they had no legal control. Countering manufacturers' objections that factory legislation meant unconstitutional infringements on their freedom of action, the 1887 factory inspector's report asked, "Has not the State the right to protect its weakest members from undue stress?" Further, it argued, if the law would punish someone who forges a businessman's signature, it should certainly "insist that the life and limbs of the citizen shall be as sacred as the capitalist's signature." In 1892 the various factory laws that had passed since the initial act of 1886 were rewritten into a single law, creating a uniform code. By 1897 the inspection force had been expanded to 26.48

Pennsylvania first passed a factory act in 1889. The germ of this law originated when complaints to the state labor bureau about working conditions led the bureau to send a staff member off to Massachusetts to study their factory inspection law and develop recommendations. A bill based on this report aimed primarily at protecting woman and child workers was introduced in the legislature in 1889. Social reformer Florence Kelley, then secretary of the National Consumers' League helped organize a Working Women's Association to support this bill, after a similar one had failed in 1887. Business interests lobbied hard against it and for a while the bill's future looked doubtful. Kelley and her group persuaded the Atlantic Sugar Refining Company to pressure a key state senator who had bottled the bill up in committee into recommending it favorably for passage. The Knights of Labor added their support to the measure and helped insure its passage.49

The act was aimed at protecting the safety of women and children, and only applied to workplaces employing ten or more of them. However, it benefited all workers in a plant that was covered. It required many of the same protections mandated in other states — covered shafts, belts and gears, protected hoist ways, vats, and pans, and so on--and gave employers 60 days to rectify violations before they would be subject to a fine. The law established a factory inspector and six deputy inspector positions, with power to inspect all workplaces employing women and children. The legislature failed to provide funds for salaries and other expenses of enforcement, but the governor went ahead and appointed an inspector, who visited New York and Massachusetts before starting operations. As in other states, a body of factory law developed, increasing the inspection force and broadening its powers. Sweatshops in 1895 and bakeries in 1897 came under the scope of the inspection laws. The factory safety and health provisions were gradually widened and made more specific. By 1906 the factory law required the use of belt shifting devices (to protect against "scalping" accidents), there had to be adequate floor space around machinery, tampering with installed safeguards on machinery was forbidden, and there had to be exhaust fans around grinding wheels and other machinery that created dust. Inspectors were given the authority to shut down any machinery that posed a serious danger by posting a notice on it that was not to be removed until the dangerous condition was eliminated.50

The first state west of the Appalachians to pass a factory inspection act was Ohio, in 1884. With the strong support of organized labor, a Department of Workshops and Factories was created, which included an "Inspector of the Sanitary Condition, Comfort, and Safety of Shops and Factories." The inspector was to visit all factories employing 10 or more persons, not, as with most other early factory acts, just those employing women and children. He or she was to see that machinery guarding, lighting, ventilation, fire exits, and so on, were adequate. The act provided for fines for violations not eliminated within 30 days, but made no provision for legal prosecution to collect those fines. The first major addition to the act came in 1888 when employers were required to report all accidents to the state. Further legislation in 1892 and 1893 increased the inspection force to eight, set stiffer fines, and spelled out more detailed safety and health requirements. In 1900 the inspector was given the power to shut down machinery that posed an imminent danger.51

Wisconsin, destined later to take over Massachusetts' role as the pacesetter in state job safety and health regulation, established a factory inspector position in 1885. Two years earlier, in 1883, the law creating the state labor statistics bureau gave it the duty of inspecting factories for safety, sanitation, fire exits, and so on, but it did not provide personnel to carry out the inspections. In 1887 the inspection force was increased to three and for the first time fines for violations were prescribed. Politically active labor organizations played a large part in passing all these laws. The inspectors' duties included enforcing most of the usual requirements set in other states' factory acts — shielding of shafts, belts, gears and other dangerous machinery and equipment, elimination of overcrowding in workrooms, safeguarding of elevators and hoistways, adequate fire exits, and so on. In a slight variation in enforcement procedure, if an employer promised to take care of a violation the inspector would take no further action. Otherwise he would serve the employer with a notice that he had 30 days to comply before being subject to arrest.52

In some states spectacular disasters spurred enactment of factory safety and health legislation. In Missouri, the Rich Hill mine disaster of 1887, in which 23 persons died, prompted passage in 1889 of a law giving the existing head of the state labor statistics bureau the right to inspect factories and mines for overcrowding, ventilation, and adequate fire exits. The inspector could not levy any fines, but he could publish the names of firms that refused to clean up dangerous conditions. It was but a short step from the limited 1889 inspection law to passage in 1891 of a broad factory inspection act with penalties for infractions. The act required most of the usual safeguards, and set up a dual enforcement system. Towns with populations of 5,000 or more were to perform their own inspections, but state inspectors retained certain enforcement powers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor later commented that "it would be difficult to conceive of a system less likely to productive of valuable results." Few towns made any attempt to perform inspections. After eight years under this system, in 1899 the new head of the state labor statistics bureau called the 1891 law a "dead letter" and sought legislation to ensure that inspections would take place. "The pressures were on," historian Martin Nemirow wrote, "to remove the state from its increasingly embarrassing position as the only state with an unenforceable factory inspection law." In 1901 the state legislature obliged and created a special department of factory inspection with a staff of eight. Overcoming labor opposition, rural legislators established a fee system, such as was used in several other states, whereby the employer would pay a small amount at the time of the inspection to defray costs.53

In 1902 Iowa became one of the last northern states to enact factory inspection legislation. Historian E.H. Downey writing in 1910 argued that since Iowa's industrial and legislative development lagged that of other regions, this gave the state the opportunity to profit by mistakes made in legislation elsewhere. That this opportunity was not well used, Downey attributed to several factors: conservative, rural legislators not familiar with industrial problems, powerful economic interests opposing protective labor laws, the fear that burdensome factory laws would discourage investment in the state, and a lack of information about what was going on in the other states.54

Like Missouri and several other states, Iowa first gave its labor statistics bureau authority, in 1896, to enter workplaces to gather information. The Commissioner who performed these inspections used the opportunity, however, to recommend voluntary improvements. The commissioner reported in 1900 that about 75 percent of the workplaces he entered had unguarded machinery, poor ventilation and other problems. This report prompted introduction of a factory inspection bill in the legislature. With the support of the state federation of labor and other labor groups, it was enacted in 1902. Besides requiring machine guarding, the law required dust removal for grinding wheels but made no mention of light, heat or general ventilation.55

Ironically, the most advanced industrial state in the Midwest, Illinois, was the one in which factory inspection legislation developed the slowest. Historian Carl Beckner attributed this to effective business opposition, particularly from the Illinois Association of Manufacturers. On the other hand, the Illinois Federation of Labor, from its inception in 1884, worked actively and steadily to obtain legislation, but success only came in bits and pieces. A sweatshop act in 1893 set up an inspection force, but it was limited strictly to the sweatshops. A limited child labor law and a law against excessive dust from emery wheels in 1897, a construction safety law in 1907, and other narrow statutes added fragmented responsibilities to the duties of the factory inspection force. A comprehensive factory inspection system was finally established in Illinois in 1909 with the passage of the Health, Safety and Comfort Act.56

Previous Next