Government Regulation of Workers' Safety and Health, 1877-1917

By Judson MacLaury

"The social battles which men have fought ... mark eras in social conditions .... Among these social contests may be classed the efforts of humane men to correct so-called factory evils."¹

During the era of industrialization in America, between the Civil War and World War I, dangerous and unhealthy working conditions and frequent serious accidents with resulting economic and social losses prompted calls for government to take action. The initial pressure for government remedies came primarily from labor groups. Investigations by state labor bureaus of dangers to workers' safety and health helped fuel a successful drive by labor for state factory acts in the industrial North, beginning with the Massachusetts Factory Act of 1877. The system of factory inspection that evolved produced significant improvements in the workplace. After 1900, middle- and upper-class Progressives added their support to the movement for government regulation of workers' safety and health. These reformers sought to overcome shortcomings that had developed in factory legislation and enforcement. They also introduced the twin innovations of workers' compensation and administrative rule making by industrial commissions. Complementing these new public initiatives, many corporations established voluntary safety programs. In addition, industrial health received special scientific and public attention in the Progressive period and was the subject of several government and private investigations.


  1. State Investigations
  2. Factory Inspection Legislation
  3. Inspection, Enforcement, Compliance
  4. Critique of State Action
  5. Progressive Era Investigations
  6. Progressive Ideas
  7. The New York Factory Investigating Commission