Skip to page content
Office of the Assistant Secretary for Administration and Management
Bookmark and Share

3. Inspection, Enforcement, Compliance

Enforcement of factory acts in the states was as varied, and yet as similar, as the body of laws itself. There were wide variations in size of inspection staff, ranging from over a hundred to none at all. Some states emphasized enforcement of laws on woman and child workers and other labor legislation rather than safety and health laws. Right from the start, however, most states adopted a cooperative and educational approach to enforcing workplace safety and health laws. In some states, delayed hiring of inspection staff made it difficult for them, even if they desired, to start out aggressively enforcing the law and fining large numbers of employers. However, even states such as New York and Massachusetts, which had strong laws and good support for inspection, stressed compliance through cooperation rather than coercion.

Compliance with the laws and with inspectors' orders and suggestions varied widely also, but there is no question that enforcement had a significant impact on employers and on workplace safety and health. Manufacturers accepted factory safety and health legislation fairly readily. The obvious benefits of reduced turnover, increased employee morale, and higher productivity more than offset, in most employers' minds, the required financial outlay for improvements.57 The low key approach seemed to allay many employers' concerns and won a degree of voluntary cooperation from manufacturers in almost every state involved. Many employers went beyond the minimum legal requirements. Some, however, resisted the laws, because they resented government interference in principle or they believed that particular safety precautions interfered with efficient production or they considered the cost of installation too high, or all of the above. Moreover, safety devices were often improperly installed or used. Sometimes the workers themselves tampered with safety guards, either out of ignorance, resistance to change, or, if they were paid on a piece‑rate basis, a desire to increase their rate of production.

Massachusetts, the pioneer in factory safety and health, found a generally high level of cooperation from employers. The Bay State was considered to have a high proportion of conscientious employers who sought voluntarily to reduce hazards. This was due partly to a long tradition of social welfare legislation, partly to a paternalistic attitude many employers had toward their workers. Enforcement did not go smoothly, however, in the early stages. Investigator Sarah Whittelsey noted in 1901 that early investigations revealed "an appalling neglect of precaution, and there was a good deal of grumbling at the requirements of old maidish inspectors." Whittelsey pointed out that in general, employers actively opposed enactment of new labor laws, but after enactment, "they, nevertheless, fall one after another into line and obedience." Compliance grew. A decrease was reported in accidents involving unguarded machinery. Sanitary conditions were much improved. Inspectors began to attest to employers' "cheerful spirit of compliance" and "courteous treatment."58

The pattern was repeated in Connecticut. Manufacturers who had opposed passage of the state's 1887 factory inspection law, at first also opposed enforcement by the inspectors. However, they became "accustomed to the law and its enforcement." Initially, the inspectors concentrated on machine guarding. Much of the machinery in use was already 15 or 20 years old. Dangerous projecting set screws on rotating shafts, unguarded gears, and other hazards were common place. As of 1890 there were 1.09 orders for protection of machinery per factory inspected. By 1905 this figure declined to 0.05 such orders per factory. "Most of the new machinery is now fairly well guarded when it is manufactured," investigator Alba Edwards reported in 1907. Overall, the number of inspections increased from 250 in 1887 to almost 2,000 in 1905. The proportion of factories found in violation of one or more provisions of the factory act averaged 50 percent in the 1887‑1895 period, but dropped sharply to 18 percent for the 1897‑1905 period. At the same time, Edwards noted, the requirements of the law had grown significantly.59

A recurring theme in inspectors' and state labor bureaus' reports was the list of improvements, spontaneous or induced, that employers made in working conditions. In the cotton textile producing state of Rhode Island it was well known that the dust, steam and heat in the mills caused throat and lung disease. Even before passage of a factory inspection law in 1894, the state labor bureau reported in 1887 that mill owners were beginning to provide for the well being of workers. Many factories had higher ceilings, better ventilation and sanitary conditions, and improved fire protection and fire escapes. "The tendency in our mills," the bureau reported in 1888, "is toward improvements in the method of manufacture, in the care and comfort of employees."60

Technological change cut two ways, however. This was illustrated in the glass industry in New Jersey. The state labor bureau began a series of surveys of different industries in 1901 to determine the degree of improvement in health conditions and to collect suggestions for further progress. Glass making was one of the first industries to be covered. Early glass factories were very unhealthy. The buildings were just shells, in wintertime exposing employees to cold drafts on one side while they were sweltering from the furnaces on the other. Many succumbed to throat and lung diseases. Later, factories were more weatherproof, but this was partially offset by the development of the continuous tank furnace, which produced a great deal of heat and required more workers, making the work area very crowded and cutting down the amount of fresh air per worker.61

Improvements predated factory inspection in Pennsylvania as well. In 1887, two years before the state's first inspection law, the state labor statistics bureau, in a report on a saw making works, described improved machinery which “economized the use of labor, and rendered the manufacture more healthful and agreeable." Under the old way of grinding saws, for example, the grinder sat astride the rapidly revolving wheel, which was very dangerous because grinding wheels frequently broke apart. He was constantly wet from water used on the wheel to keep the dust down. The new machinery eliminated all that, and resulted in lower costs besides.62

When factory inspection did begin in Pennsylvania, the inspector had the legal right to enter any workplace to enforce the law. A few employers attempted to deny entry to the inspectors. However, most employers reportedly exhibited "a wholesome respect for the law," allowed inspectors to enter, and complied promptly with any orders the inspectors gave. Employers did not seem to mind meeting safety or health standards, as long as everyone else complied.63

The comprehensive and well-publicized Massachusetts and English factory inspection laws had led to high public expectations for inspections in the state of New York. The factory laws there were not as broad in scope, however, and factory inspectors complained: "We are continually receiving complaints concerning matters over which we have no jurisdiction, and being blamed for not doing things which we have no power to do." The state had to investigate all complaints sent in, which made them "a source of great annoyance and expense to the department." The silver lining was that this indicated the existence of "a healthy public sentiment in favor of stronger ... legislation concerning factory inspection."64

The New York inspectors' watchwords in enforcement were "rigorous, yet reasonable." If an employer was in violation without criminal intent, the department would only admonish, rather than prosecute. The inspectors felt that "it would be neither wise nor just ... to be continually embroiled ... with the employers ... for technical violations of the law" and that this would tend to defeat the whole purpose of legislation. The inspectors were reluctant to make specific recommendations on safeguards because they lacked complete knowledge of what was available.65

As in most states, the employers' abatement of industrial hazards in New York ran the gamut from full compliance to stubborn resistance. Here again, technology eliminated some of the problems even before enforcement began. A doctor who had long practiced in a textile mill town told the state labor bureau that the little girls who worked in the mills frequently used to suffer broken legs because they used their feet to shift the belts that connected their machines with floor mounted power shafts. The doctor estimated that by 1884 there was less than one sixth the number of accidents of this nature.66

In the first years of enforcement, New York's inspector reported that manufacturers had been generally pleasant and were "willing and anxious" to comply with the law. They proudly showed inspectors safety measures that they had taken, and were even willing to go beyond the provisions of the law if the inspectors had any further suggestions. While the inspection department did not have the chance to follow up on all inspectors' orders, it believed that most employers complied. The inspectors seldom found it "necessary to even remotely hint" at a penalty to obtain assurance of compliance. Many employers seemed glad to be told of any safety violations in their plants and took care of them immediately. The state reported in 1888 that among the manufacturers, "There is no longer the feeling that we come to them as enemies to pry into their private affairs." The inspectors did not hesitate to make recommendations that went beyond the scope of the law, and the employers usually assured them that the suggestions would be carried out. Many manufacturers demanded that the machinery they bought be built for safe operation, which spurred the invention of new safety devices and features in machinery.67

Balancing the safety picture in New York, the factory inspectors reported examples of less than perfect compliance. One inspector reported that employers who were charged with violations often simply delayed abatement until a second inspection, which because of limited time and personnel might not come for a year or more. Repeated visits and threats of legal action were sometimes necessary to obtain compliance. Known hazards were often allowed to persist, even after they had caused accidents. For example, a tailoring room in one clothing factory had unprotected shafting which once caught on an employee's dress, yet nothing was done until an inspector came and ordered the shaft covered.68

Employers were not the only violators, however. Most factories in New York posted notices forbidding the cleaning of machinery while it was in motion before this was required by law, but employees commonly ignored the warnings. The issue was complicated, however, by the fact that the companies usually expected the workers to do clean up on their own time when the machinery stopped. The employees got around this by cleaning up while the machinery was still running. Another inspector reported that sometimes after he had ordered safeguards installed on machinery, employees removed them. The employers sometimes had to threaten to fire them to compel them to leave the devices alone.69

Further complicating the compliance picture, the law itself was not always in tune with technology. For example, the 1886 New York factory act required the use of automatically opening and closing hatches over elevator holes.  At the high speeds at which most elevators ran, however, these hatches did not work very well. Many employers refused to install them. The inspectors recognized the problem, but they had to enforce the letter of the law regardless. Furthermore, without these hatches, open elevator holes acted as giant flues in case of fire. The problem was ultimately solved with the installation of completely enclosed elevator shafts.70

Four years after Wisconsin's first factory inspector was appointed in 1885, the commissioner of labor and industrial statistics reported that manufacturers generally complied with inspectors' orders. In 1889, only one manufacturer was reported to have given the inspector a hard time. He refused to allow an inspection until the inspector threatened to obtain a court order. More typical, however, was a bakery owner who told the inspector, "You are just the man I wish to consult."71

Despite improvement in compliance, problems remained. In 1898 the Wisconsin bureau reported that it was often difficult to find safety devices that did not reduce efficiency. Sanitary improvements and fire escapes were expensive, which led many employers to resist their adoption. Constant pressure and attention were needed to obtain compliance. Employers objected to the posting of laws in their establishments and some tore them down. The proprietor of a shoe factory with very poor fire escape routes showed "a disposition to defeat" an inspector's request for more fire escapes, though he complied in the end. A cloak maker who was also found to have inadequate fire escapes went to the extreme of relocating his operation to avoid compliance. Such delays were not uncommon. When an inspector found abominable conditions in the dipping rooms of a match factory — poorly ventilated rooms filled with poisonous fumes from the liquid phosphorus which made up the match heads — he tried to persuade the operators to make improvements. They objected because of the costs involved and the inspector "left without expecting to see the changes made." When a machinery manufacturer equipped his ripsaws with guards after an inspection, a reinspection revealed that the employees had removed the guards.72

In neighboring Minnesota, the initial factory inspection law of 1887 gave the state labor statistics bureau the duty of examining safety and health conditions. Since it was given virtually no enforcement powers, the bureau stressed, out of necessity, an educational and voluntary approach:

“The introduction of safety devices is ... an appeal to the humanity, intelligence, and self interest of the manufacturer. The successful factory inspector must, in the beginning, rely more upon reason than upon the power of penalties. The public must be educated to see how machinery can be made safe and factories more healthful, and through this education a public sentiment (will be) created which will enforce the better way upon the few who are slow of comprehension or hard of heart.”73

This approach seems to have been fairly effective. The state labor commissioner found in discussions with various manufacturers that many were favorably disposed toward a factory inspection system, if it was well administered. One of them pointed out that businessmen had little time to study safety and health, but a factory inspector could specialize and could "show the busy manufacturer many devices that will at once protect the workers' lives and limbs and also guard the employer's pocketbook." The inspector reported on factory conditions and advised employers on improvements. He claimed that he got as good compliance with his suggestions as did inspectors in other states where orders were backed up by the law.74

In a sad story repeated many times over in workshops across the country, however, workmen in a Minnesota furniture factory thwarted the best intentions of both inspector and employer. The commissioner of labor statistics reported that when the manufacturer adopted, at the inspector's suggestion, guards for his buzz saws, the workmen did not accept the change in procedure that resulted. Despite the employer's warning of the necessity of using the guard, the men insisted on removal of the devices. Within a week one of the men lost several fingers on a saw. The guards were then put on to stay.75

When Indiana passed its factory act of 1897 it was not apparent until after a factory inspector was appointed that there was a serious constitutional question about the law. The Indiana constitution required that all laws passed by the state legislature had to deal with one main subject, which was to be expressed in the law's title. The factory act covered safety and health for all workers, as well as regulating woman and child labor, but its title mentioned only women and children. Since the law was defective, the inspector, Daniel McAbee, "deemed it unwise to proceed hastily or harshly in its enforcement." Still, he managed to obtain voluntary compliance, both in workplaces that employed women and children and in those that employed only men. In 1899 McAbee, with the support of the state federation of labor, persuaded the legislature to revise the earlier act to remedy the faulty wording so that the bill would clearly cover all workers. The bill also added a few requirements and created a department of inspection.76

Even before the revision in 1899, inspector McAbee reported that businessmen who had opposed the initial inspection act "are now in sincere cooperation with the law." Factory operators who had feared interference from the inspector learned that "it is not the purpose of this department to 'run' their establishments." In the first year of operation, the inspector made numerous “orders" (without legal force), such as seeing that fire escapes were provided, exhaust fans installed, fly wheels shielded, and so on. About 88 percent of these requests were complied with. Some companies went beyond the inspector's requests, at great expense, in providing the best possible exhaust fans, fire escapes, and other safety equipment. One woodworking plant installed an exhaust fan system that caught up the dust and shavings and conducted them to the boiler fires, producing enough steam to power the whole plant. In many cases, companies could not comply with the inspector's requests for want of room, but when they built new plants, up‑to‑date safety improvements were included. While the 1897 act excluded small employers with less than ten workers from the requirements, many of them had the inspector visit them anyway and took care of hazards that he pointed out. McAbee pointed out that these smaller places had more total accidents than larger establishments and he called for the law to be changed to include small employers under its requirements.77

Among the enforcement problems inspector McAbee reported was the difficulty of getting employers to report accidents within 48 hours. He considered this one of the most important provisions of the factory act because "it is a constant reminder that the hand of authority is over the establishments where (accidents) occur." Improper installation of required equipment was another problem. Dust in iron mills was very difficult to control, for example, and control devices had to be carefully fitted to certain machines. The factory operators buying and installing the devices knew little about the nature and workings of ventilation systems, however, and the workmen using the machinery often discarded the hoods and other equipment. McAbee believed that workmen were "prone to view such things as guards with contempt, and as a reflection on their ability."78

Ohio provided some interesting contrasts in regard to factory inspection. On the one hand, in 1887 the inspectors reported "marked improvement in the character of the workshops." On the other, there were examples, such as a private employer who had leased a pottery shop at the state penitentiary using prison labor. The sanitary conditions were terrible and the atmosphere was heavy with dust. The proprietor refused to make changes recommended by the inspector. When confronted by a legal order to comply, the man sought a court injunction against the inspector's order. The matter was only resolved when the establishment went out of business.79

There were diverse indications in Ohio of a positive response by business to factory inspection. Col. James James Kilbourne, head of a Columbus manufacturing company who lectured frequently on social problems, asserted that it was only "common humanity that employers should take every practical precaution against bodily hurt to their employees." He argued that even if all employers were "alive to their duty ... public supervision would still be desirable." On a more practical level, a magazine advertisement by the Dodge Manufacturing Co. of Cincinnati asked the reader: "Are you using safety collars? The State Factory Inspectors are making more rigid search than formerly for dangerous machinery ... and are ... throwing out all shaft collars having projecting set screws." Dodge offered their set screw collars as safe substitutes.80

As occurred elsewhere, the impersonal forces of technology and economic growth in Ohio produced progress in which factory inspection played only at most an indirect role. When industrialist John H. Patterson built new National Cash Register facilities in Dayton the state bureau of labor statistics featured it in an article on "A Wonderful Factory System" in the 1896 annual report. "The new factory building has been conceded by experts to be ... the best heated, best lighted and best ventilated factory building in the world." The bureau quoted Patterson as saying, "Give a person good surroundings and you will receive good work in return."81

Missouri's factory inspection program faced as severe limitations as could be found in any state. Under the 1891 Missouri factory inspection law, cities with at least 5,000 population had to provide their own inspectors. Rather than hiring qualified inspectors, they ordered city clerks, police officers, engineers and other employees to do inspections on top of their regular duties. For much of the 1890s the legislature refused to give adequate support to factory inspection by the state. In addition, the state economy slowed down, which meant that older, more dangerous plant and equipment was less likely to be replaced by new facilities.

Despite these problems, there was a significant degree of compliance. Under a limited 1889 inspection law and the 1891 factory act, the commissioners of labor statistics reported widespread voluntary abatement of hazards. Oddly, industry in the city of St. Louis, which made no effort to provide the inspections required by the factory act, achieved good compliance, according to the state inspectors who tried to fill in the gap. Nemirow concluded that this very lack of regular inspection and enforcement was a significant factor. Since the state was obliged to adopt a voluntaristic, cooperative approach, with no compliance orders or strict deadlines to enforce, "The forces for change ... were allowed to operate at their own pace." Elsewhere, inspectors gave employers 30 days to make necessary changes, but enforcement was widely supplemented by the provision of educational and technical assistance. The factory inspector in Missouri functioned as "a kind of bumblebee, bringing safety and health insights ... from one workshop to the next.82

In 1887 Ohio factory inspector Henry Dorn, a machinist and an active trade unionist, invited the inspectors from five states to meet to discuss mutual problems. At this meeting, held in Philadelphia, was born the International Association of Factory Inspectors (IAFI). Its primary goals were the education of the public on the purposes of inspection and the promotion of communication and mutual assistance among inspectors. The organization existed mainly through its annual conventions, which became more elaborate and well attended as states established and expanded their factory inspection programs. The IAFI generally favored a moderate, cooperative approach to enforcement. At the second meeting in 1888 Association president Rufus Wade, chief inspector for Massachusetts, told his colleagues:

“Our chief duty... is to enforce the laws .... We are expected to exercise common sense.... It is not wise to exert authority in an arbitrary, unreasonable and offensive manner. We are not to assume that every slight and technical violation of the laws ... must be dealt with as if the offender was a willful wrongdoer.”83

Previous Next