1. State Investigations

The first steps toward legislation and regulation were the investigation of conditions and publication of the results. In response to labor lobbying and public concern for the condition of the working classes, most states had established bureaus of labor statistics. Massachusetts set up the first such bureau in 1869. These bureaus conducted investigations into all facets of labor and industry and published the data in their annual reports. One of their primary concerns was the emerging problem of hazardous industrial working conditions. They sent questionnaires to employers, interviewed workers, collected descriptive and statistical data on deaths, injuries and illnesses, and investigated unhealthy trades. The bureaus' reports also included examples of safe and healthful workplaces. These published accounts constituted a relatively unscientific but often shocking survey of the conditions under which millions of Americans worked. State bureaus helped arouse public opinion to rally behind labor's campaign for protective legislation.

The Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor was the pioneering and pace‑setting agency among the states. Its first annual report in 1870 des­cribed accidents to children working in textile mills, paper mills and other establishments. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, primarily under the leader­ship of Carroll Wright who was appointed Commissioner of Labor Statistics in 1873, the bureau mailed questionnaires to employers and sent investigators out to observe conditions first‑hand. Working conditions varied widely and the annual reports presented a mixed picture. In 1871 the bureau found that ventilation in the Lowell Mills was poor because the windows had to be kept closed during the manufacture of certain types of fabric. In 1873, however, the bureau reported that improvements there in factory architecture, machinery, and ventilation had reduced the threats to the operatives’ health. The next year investigative agents went into most of the state's textile mills, checking machine guarding, ventilation, protection of shafting, fire escapes elevators, and amounts of air space per worker. They found shafting and machines guarded fairly well, though air space was not always adequate. Most of the mills were pronounced to be in good order.2

To get labor's side of the picture, in 1882 Massachusetts sought the views of workers in three towns. It reported no complaints on machine guarding and few on lighting or ventilation. One worker said "our machinery is well guarded, and we have plenty of heat in the winter, and there is always good light and perfect ventilation." There were however, complaints about dis­agreeable odors from the machinery and about cotton dust getting into the throat, which gave "every one the appearance of having a cold."3

Two dangers in the mills, one to safety and the other to health, drew particular attention from the Massachusetts Bureau. In 1875 it reported on a tragic fire at the Granite Mills in Fall River in which many were killed, some of them young children. The bureau found that poor means of exit from the upper stories accounted for much of the carnage. The health hazard was “a shuttle which is simply death to the (textile mill) operatives." To draw thread through a hole in the shuttle, the worker had to put their mouth to it and suck it through, in the process inhaling quantities of lint and dust. This had to be repeated every 2 or 3 minutes over a 12 to 14 hour work day. Most operatives became sick after 2 years of exposure to this "kiss of death" shuttle, as it became known. The annual report for 1874 mentioned one mill that had developed a shuttle that was safe to use and said that "if, by this little notice of a truly valuable invention, other factories are induced to adopt it, the whole cost of this Bureau will have been amply repaid."4

Another special concern of the Massachusetts Bureau was the general condition of young working women, including the effects of jobs on health. An 1875 report on "Special Effects of Certain Forms of Employment Upon Female Health" found that excessive physical demands on immature bodies, long hours and generally unhealthy conditions frequently caused illnesses among this group. In the cotton mills, excessive dust, excessive heat and humidity (both necessary for efficient textile production), and hard, mono­tonous work were "quite sufficient to wage successful war upon the general health" and particularly on women's reproductive systems. Typography, tele­graphy and sewing machine labor were also determined to be particularly hard on women. The bureau report appealled to industry to reduce the fatiguing and generally unhealthy aspects of work. An 1884 report on "The Working Girls of Boston," while mainly concerned with a possible connection between prostitution and work, surveyed the health effects of occupations. It found a general deterioration of health. Many of the girls questioned complained of poor ventilation, long hours and having to be on their feet all the time. In button factories, the girls frequently got their fingers caught under punch presses. They reported that the factory gave free dressings the first three times an employee was injured, but after that she had to pay for her own. However, it should be noted that comments on bad conditions came from only a small proportion of the girls questioned.5

There were many occupations in Massachusetts outside of the textile industry that were found to be hazardous. One of the worst was the making of phos­phorus matches. "No one who has investigated the history of those employed in the manufacture of matches," the Bureau reported in 1874, "can doubt that the terrible disorganization of the tissues of the body, which results from long employment therein, is worse than death." The bureau complained that little improvement had been made, although the dangers had long been known. The report listed picking hair for mattresses, tending vats in tanneries, and other jobs involving the handling of organic matter as particularly unhealthy. Dry steel grinding, woodturning and machine sand papering were excessively dusty. Parasitic diseases from wool handling and preparation of human hair were common.6

Massachusetts pioneered also in collecting statistics on industrial injuries, but encountered difficulties in this effort. In 1883 it noted that there were wide variations in accident statistics from different countries. It accounted for this variation as the result of differing definitions of “serious" injuries. The bureau also ran into difficulty in trying to gauge the effects of textile mills on operatives' health and longevity. It found that few persons died while working in the mills and concluded that when they saw their health decline they left their jobs. Unless they died in a company hospital their death was not recorded as job‑related. The high turnover in mill workers made it difficult to collect accurate data on the average length of life, cause of death or state of health.7

Like Massachusetts, Rhode Island was primarily a textile manufacturing state, and its Bureau of Industrial Statistics published workers' responses to questionnaires. Two "drawers‑in" from the woollen mills reported very damp conditions. One said the workroom was a "swampy place ... water bubbles through the floor" and sprinklers used to keep the wool damp also kept the workers' clothing soaking wet all day. On the other hand, a loom fixer of 36 years experience said he had worked in many mills and did not believe they caused any particular disease.8

In 1899 the New York Bureau of Labor Statistics published one of the first large‑scale surveys of industrial accidents in a report on workers' compensation. It asked labor unions and thousands of employers for accident data over a 3‑month period, and received returns covering almost half a million workers. The returns were tabulated and broken down into 12 industry groups. There were tables on types of injuries, causes of accidents, sizes of workplaces involved, and so on. The results probably told more about the limited state of the art of measuring industrial injuries than about the true extent of industrial injuries themselves. The special survey revealed an accident rate much higher than that which resulted from the employers' reports which were normally sent in. The implication was that ordinarily employers did not fully report accidents. The bureau concluded, based on its experience, that:

“In gathering statistics of industrial accidents, this country has made only a beginning.... The incompleteness of these figures ... has been so patent that no statistician has ever undertaken to use them for the measurement of the relative hazard of occupations.”9

The New York bureau's 1884 report revealed a mixed picture of conditions in textile mills. It included testimony from physicians with first‑hand experience. One doctor who practiced among mill workers reported adequate fire‑safety measures and good sanitary conditions in the mills: "I think they have done all they can; the rooms are high, tolerably well ventilated and clean." On the other hand, he said there were many accidents to the children and their health was not as good as that of children outside the mills. A physician from Massachusetts testified that in his town, the workers were physically dwarfed because the long hours in the mills exposed them to noise and heat, and cut them off from breathing fresh air. He noted the "careworn, dejected appearance of the operatives." The report concluded that there was, in general, little effort made in the mills and other establishments to provide healthful conditions.10

The health of working women, according to the 1885 New York report, was “as good, perhaps, as the health of women generally." Men usually had the more dangerous, unhealthy jobs. Frequently the factories in which women were employed were more healthful than the tenement homes in which many women made garments for sale. The report acknowledged that long hours and poor living conditions took their toll on the health of women, but stressed that the particular work they did was not responsible for this.11

Health conditions in New York bakeries were exceptionally bad. In an 1895 study the bureau did in cooperation with the bakers' union, it found that bakers worked inhumanly long hours, sometimes over 100 per week and that 11 percent of them had been ill the previous year. Over a thousand bake shops in New York City were in basements. Some of them were "cellars of the worst description .... damp, fetid, and devoid of proper ventilation and light." Many of them had very low ceilings, forcing workers to labor in a stooped-over position all day. Two‑thirds of the bakeries inspected were classed as "totally unfit."12

A pioneering study on "Hygiene of Occupation" by health inspector Roger Tracy, M.D., appeared in the 1884 New York bureau report. The Tracy study was a systematic survey of cases and research involving a wide range of health and safety problems. It classed the dangers of occupations into three groups: substances introduced into the body, such as dusts and gases; physical conditions, which interfered with well being, such as heat; and mechanical dangers. Tracy pointed out that as larger concerns replaced smaller work­shops, there were certain benefits to workers because the new surroundings were often more healthful and sanitary. On the other hand, new hazards resulted from some of the new substances and processes.13

From 1889 to 1895 the New Jersey Bureau of Statistics on Labor and Indus­try engaged in an effort to produce useful statistics on occupational health. For seven years it collected statistics on the health of workmen in 16 different trades, primarily in an effort to discover the effect of the length of time spent in a trade on workers' health and longevity. The first and largest installment, titled "The effect of occupation on the health and duration of trade‑life of workmen," filled 300 pages of the 1889 annual report of the bureau, including 164 pages of detailed statistical tables. Data was collected directly from workers, often in house‑to‑house canvassing, in the glass, pottery and hat‑making industries, and from death records kept by several unions. Tables were developed showing relationships among worker's age, length of time in the trade, estimated age at onset of decline in health causes of decline, disability or death, and so on.14

While the study was reportedly well received and was extended to the buil­ding trades, printing, mining, textile mills and many other trades, it ran into problems and was basically a "noble failure." Setting the exact date of the onset of decline in a man's health was an extremely subjective judgment. Furthermore, there was no effort to separate occupational factors from diet, living conditions and other environmental influences. The difficulties were compounded in industries such as textiles, in which a recent influx of new workers, many of them young and vigorous, distorted the results, or leather‑working, for which there was no data collected on health disabilities.15

The New Jersey study was not a complete failure, however. Besides collec­ting valuable, if somewhat imprecise, statistics on workers' health in various trades, it included workers' comments and vignettes of particular trades. A plumber told investigators that a worker was rarely found who had worked at the trade as long as thirty years because they generally succumbed to rheumatism and "after becoming stiff in their joints they are obliged to quit the trade." A painter said that, while many in his trade would not admit it, most were affected by disease that was often "so gradual that they do not realize their danger until they are far gone." "It is rare," he con­tinued, "to meet an old painter who has not the evidence of disease stamped on his face." The New Jersey study reported conflicting views on the health­fulness of cigar making. Some complained of poor ventilation in the shops. Others believed the pervasive odor of tobacco was good for their health and helped prevent typhus and other diseases. The bureau singled out for praise the management of a corset factory for its "wise and humane" treatment of workers and for providing a well‑lighted, pleasant place to work.16

The Bureau of Industrial Statistics of Pennsylvania listed all reported victims of industrial accidents alphabetically by name, with brief descrip­tions of the cause and nature of the accident. The most common types in­volved falls from a height, heavy objects falling on workers, a part of the body, usually the hand, getting caught in machinery, and contact with hot or explosive liquids. Many were simply listed as due to carelessness. A 19­year‑old was burned on the neck and face by an explosion of benzene; a man was stabbed through the hand in a quarrel; a 14‑year‑old girl lost four fingers because of "curiosity."17

Pennsylvania, like many other states, was concerned with the widespread practice of using immigrants for sweatshop labor in the clothing industry. Historian Melvin Dubofsky wrote that many immigrants to the U.S.:

“exchanged the stagnation of a feudal society for the bondage of an industrial system. The riches of the new world were frequently a mirage, and the dream of American opportunity led often to the sweatshop, where laborers slept on upswept floors littered with work refuse while their worktables doubled as dining tables.”18

In 1893 the Pennsylvania bureau sent investigators into 273 sweatshops and homes. They discovered two groups of laborers working under vastly different circumstances: German immigrants and American‑born citizens in clean, well lighted, separate workrooms, and Russian Jews working in their own living rooms with poor lighting, filthy conditions, and no fresh air. In one of the worst examples, a family of seven lived and worked in a two room apartment. "The dirt could absolutely have been shoveled out of the rooms, garbage and filth of all kinds was strewn about the floor, and ... one of the agents was made sick."19

Like a number of other states, Ohio published individual descriptions of serious accidents, some poignant, some repulsive, in the annual reports of its Bureau of Labor Statistics. A boiler in a steam engine running a threshing machine exploded, killing three men and scalding a young boy. One man was thrown 80 feet through the air to his death; another had his head blown off, which landed grotesquely in a basket. A buzz‑saw operator got caught in his machine and lost an arm and a leg. A year earlier he had lost his right arm in the same manner. An engineer trying to oil machinery while it was in motion was killed when his head was caught against a post by a heavy fly wheel, “grinding out his brains." A boy in a printing house working at a press tried to straighten out an improperly placed sheet of paper and had several fingers crushed when he did not get his hand out of the way in time.20

Ohio also investigated health conditions, although it was hampered in this because the bureau lacked the power to enter workplaces without the employer’s permission. Statistical studies of iron‑molders in the state revealed that they took "desperate chances in the 'lottery of life.’" In 1886 the death rate for molders in Ohio jumped to over 24 per thousand workers, versus a rate of 14.3 for molders in England. In Ohio their average age at death was 37; in England they lived to age 51. Molders in Ohio were exposed to sudden changes in temperature and were "taking in with every breath a compound composed of slaked lime, cement, the dust of coal coke, black‑lead." It was not lung disease, however, but rheumatism, heart disease and consumption that took the heaviest toll of the molders.21

The picture was not all bleak in Ohio, however. The town of East Liverpool, which had a heavy concentration of the pottery industry, was judged to be a healthy place, leading the bureau to conclude that potting was "ordinarily not injurious to the system," It did note several diseases peculiar to the industry, such as "potter's rot," an asthma caused by in­haling dried clay, and "potter's paralysis," found among those who dipped ware in glaze and suffered a brief paralysis (probably lead poisoning). Cited as an outstanding example was a potato‑chip factory employing 25 women which was found to be "clean, light and comfortable."22

Wisconsin did not require employers to report workplace accidents to its Bureau of Labor and Industrial Statistics, though some volunteered the information anyway. The bureau was convinced, however, that systematic, com­plete data was needed both to pinpoint problems and to publicize the true extent of industrial injury and death. The 1897‑98 biennial report said:

“No manufacturing state or nation can in the long run afford to neglect the collection and representation of complete and reliable statistics and facts concerning accidents to working people.23

In 1902 Wisconsin published the results of a survey of the health and working conditions of working women by the state bureau. The bureau concluded that, although there were many workplaces with atrocious conditions, on the average, the health of factory women was about the same as that of other working groups. It reported that 18 percent of the women surveyed said their job was injurious to their health, and 82 percent said it was not. The bureau also reported that 96 percent of the women considered the sanitary condition of their workplaces "good" or "fair," and only 4 percent rated it "bad." The report pointed out, however, that these were very subjective categories, and that conditions often appeared worse to the investigators than the workers' ratings would indicate.24

Among the worst examples were the shops where old rags for papermaking were sorted. The workers were mostly poor, Eastern European immigrant women. The shops were "open to every sort of objection." They were dirty, poorly ventilated, unheated, usually on the cramped second floor of a dilapidated building and reached by steep cluttered stairways. An In­spector reported that "as the door was opened, it was at first impossible to see the sorters because of the clouds of dust." The investigator found it "difficult to give an adequate picture ... without seeming to overstep the limits of truth."25

There were many other examples of the minority of plants with bad condi­tions. Women working as core‑makers in brass foundries preparing sand molds for castings were subjected to very dirty surroundings and they "inevitably get themselves covered with the greasy sand." Enamels making baked enamelware sometimes had to use powdered glaze that got into their lungs. Heat from the firing furnaces was intense, despite efforts to conduct it away from the work area, and the girls were often overcome from it. Girls working at the dipping vats in varnishing plants sometimes found themselves "varnished" from head to foot and when they washed the varnish off with a benzene solution they suffered skin irritation.26

While Iowa was not heavily industrialized, it did have a number of indus­trial establishments, and conditions in them were often bad. The newer plants had large, airy rooms and good ventilation, but the older ones had low ceil­ings, dark, damp interiors, and almost no ventilation. As in many other states, the iron works were the worst offenders. The furnaces, forges, and anvils produced excessive smoke and gases that were sometimes so thick one could not see across a workroom. The employers seldom furnished the expensive ventilating systems necessary to carry off the pollutants.27

Minnesota was another of the states that lacked mandatory reporting of industrial accidents, but, like Pennsylvania, it did list known accidents individually in its reports. At a fiber ware factory a girl was disemboweled when she became caught in the gearing. At a flour mill, a man leaned over a power shaft and his shirt became caught on a set screw, resulting in a dis­located shoulder and cuts on the arm. A boy was swinging on a loose belt hanging from the shafting when the belt suddenly started moving and the boy was pulled up and whirled around the shaft. He fell to the floor horribly maimed and died within an hour.28