5. Progressive Era Investigations

There was great interest during the Progressive Era (1900-1917) in investigation and amelioration of hazardous working conditions. President Theodore Roosevelt had championed the conservation movement and broadened its scope to include the saving of human life. It was but a short step from there to protecting the lives and limbs of industrial workers. Through settlement houses and other urban social work, reformers aided workers and their families and entreated employers to eliminate dangerous working conditions and other abuses. Muckraking journalists and others gave nation‑wide publicity to accidents and unsafe conditions.113

From 1902 to 1907 The Factory Inspector, unofficial journal of the Inter­national Association of Factory Inspectors, regularly published accounts gathered by state labor bureaus of industrial accidents. The steel industry produced some of the most violent accidents that this journal reported. At a steel mill in Butler, Pennsylvania, a heavy pot of hot metal spilled molten steel onto wet sand, causing a huge explosion which destroyed part of the plant. Streams of hot metal poured down on the workmen, engulfing and literally cooking some of them. Four men died and 30 more were injured. The explosion shook buildings in the town and caused panic among the populace. Thousands turned out to watch the huge fire that ensued.114 Two employees at a steel plant in Youngstown, Ohio were sent to clean out the dust underneath the blast furnaces. Suddenly there was a slippage of tons of molten fuel and ore inside the furnace, causing large amounts of very hot dust to fall on them. One of the men was completely buried in it and died in great agony. The other escaped with severe burns.115

Less spectacular but more frequent were the individual tragedies reported in The Factory Inspector resulting from unprotected machinery in a variety of industries. A machinist got his arm caught in a rapidly moving belt. It was jerked from its socket, and he fell 50 feet to the floor. His fellow workers, aghast at the man's shrieks, ran in panic from the shop. A young boy working in a coffin plant was decapitated and had both arms and both legs torn off when he was caught on shafting rotating at 300 revolutions per minute. A worker in a brick‑making factory was caught in a belt and had most of his skin torn off. A sawmill worker fell onto a large, unguarded circular saw and was split in two. When a worker got caught in the large flywheel of the main steam power plant of a navy yard, his arms and legs were torn off and the lifeless trunk was hurled against a wall 50 feet away.116 Perhaps the most horrifying accident reported in the journal was described as follows:

“In plain sight of a hundred fellow‑workmen, Martin Stoffel was cut into small pieces at the Philadelphia Caramel Works ... He was dragged into the machinery and his head severed... A second later both legs were cut off. Then one arm after the other fell into the lesser wheels below, both being cut into many parts. Before the machinery could be stopped, Stoffel had been literally chopped to pieces.”117

Dramatically underscoring the frequency of industrial accidents, The Factory Inspector once reported on "the peculiar coincidence of two men of the same name meeting their doom in the same manner at the same hour" in different cities. John Minick of Escanaba, Michigan, and a namesake in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, both millwrights, were killed when their clothing became entangled in rotating shafting. No one witnessed either accident, but the bodies were found later.118

The steel industry had come under intense public scrutiny with the formation of the U.S. Steel Corp. and several muckrakers also turned their attention to this industry. In Chicago, home of U.S. Steel's huge South Works, bad working conditions were widespread. Writer William B. Hard came to investigate in 1907 and attracted nation‑wide attention with his article "Making Steel and Killing Men."119

In this fair‑minded but tough expose, Hard showed why he felt that  "steel is war" in the huge mill, in which he found an almost "diabolical hypnotism exercised ... by (its) overwhelming majesty." Hard estimated that each year 1,200 men were killed or injured out of a work force of about 10,000. He described an accident in which a man was roasted alive by molten slag that spilled from a giant ladle when a hook from an overhead crane carrying it slipped. The ladle lacked proper lugs and the hook had been attached precariously to the rim. Hard argued that U.S. Steel had ample ability to reduce accidents but lacked strong incentive to do so. When a man was killed on the job, there was only one chance in five that the company would ever have to pay compensation to his survivors.

Vivid first‑hand accounts of conditions similar to, if somewhat later than, those Hard encountered are found in Charles Rumford Walker's Steel: The Diary of a Furnace Worker. He wrote it around 1920 after he had graduated from college and worked for a while in a steel mill. Walker and a foreign‑born co‑worker named Adolf went to the top of a blast furnace. Adolf asked him if he smelled the gas (which contained carbon monoxide) that issued from the furnace. "'You stay li'l bit, pretty soon you drunk .... You stay li'l bit more,' he continued, his grin broadening, 'pretty soon you dead.’” The stoves used to heat the air blast in the furnaces had a brick checker work on the top of the furnace to retain the heat. This checker work filled up with flue dust periodically and had to be cleaned out. The dust was so thick one could hardly see, and the heat so intense that one could work only three minutes at a time. When Walker went up there he reported that "my lungs were like paper on fire." There was an open shaft next to the checker work that went all the way to the bottom of the furnace. Walker was told a man had fallen down that shaft to his death.120

Walker became sharply aware of the difficulties faced by the non‑English speaking immigrant workers in the mills. It struck him, after being bawled out “picturesquely for not knowing where something was that I had never heard of, that this was what every immigrant Hunky endured." Once, when the pit boss told a Slavic worker to do a particular job, the man did not understand, and the pit boss said, "Lord! but these Hunkies are dumb." Walker was convinced that most of the accidents, misunderstandings and wasted motion that took place would disappear if there were "a common language, of mind as well as tongue."121

Immigrant steelworkers were generally willing to put up with the long hours, hard, work, and bad conditions as long as they had steady employment. They were usually stuck with the dirtiest, hottest, most hazardous jobs. Steel­ making, dangerous enough for experienced workers, was even more so for these unseasoned peasants. From 1906 to 1910, the accident rates for immigrants at the South Works were double those for English‑speakers. Each year, about one‑fourth of the immigrant workers were killed or injured on the job.122

In 1907‑1908 the Russell Sage Foundation sponsored a massive survey of living and working conditions in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, focusing on workers in the steel industry, though it included mining and railroading. Titled the "Pittsburgh Survey," it was well publicized and revealed an ugly side of industrializing America. One of the many publications that grew out of it was Crystal Eastman's Work Accidents and the Law, published in 1910.

Eastman based her book on data gathered on all industrial deaths in the Pittsburgh area for one year, on accidents for three months, over a thousand cases in all. Investigators tracked down data on the nature of each accident — the cause, who was at fault, economic effects on families, and so on. Mines and railroads were included, but steel mills constituted the largest manufacturing sector. Eastman hoped to find the answers to two questions: what was the true distribution of blame for accidents between workers and employers; and, who bore the brunt of the economic burden of work accidents.123

The answer to the second question was fairly clear. Of the 526 deaths in the year of the Pittsburgh Survey, 235 involved survivors. Of those, 53 percent received $100 or less from the employer. Of the 509 workmen injured in a three month period, employers paid hospital costs for 84 percent of them, but only 37 percent received any benefits beyond that, according to Eastman. "For our present purpose this fact is significant enough: In over one-half of the deaths and injuries ... the employers assumed absolutely no share of the inevitable income loss."124 Further underlining the shifting of the burden of lost income from employers to victims, Eastman wrote:

“In work accidents we have a peculiar kind of disaster, by which... only wage earners are affected, and which falls upon them in addition to all the disasters that are the common lot. A special cloud always threatens the home of the worker in dangerous trades .... (I)t is not just that those whose lot falls in this part of the work should endure not only all the physical torture that comes with injury, but also almost the entire economic loss which inevitably follows it.”125

Eastman's answer to the question of blame for accidents differed from the prevailing views. At that time, employers commonly believed that around 95 percent of all accidents were due to workers' carelessness. Eastman challenged this conviction with figures showing that, of the 377 accidents covered in the Survey for which fault could be determined, 113, or 30 percent, of them were solely the employers' fault. Further, at most, only 44 percent could be even partially blamed on the victim or fellow workmen.126

Shifting the statistical focus somewhat, Eastman made a strong case that even those accidents due to "carelessness" were not very clear cut. Of the 132 deaths which were found to be the victim's fault, 47 involved very young or inexperienced workers, or those with physical conditions that made them vulnerable. That left 85 experienced, able‑bodied victims of "carelessness":

“For the heedless ones, no defense is made. For the inattentive we maintain that human powers of attention, universally limited, are in their case further limited by the conditions under which the work is done — long hours, heat, noise, intense speed. For the reckless ones we maintain that natural inclination is in their case encouraged and inevitably increased by an occupation involving constant risk.

Regarding the workman who was reckless, not on impulse but in a deliberate effort to cut corners, Eastman wrote in their defense:

“If a hundred times a day a man is required to take necessary risks, it is not in reason to expect him to stop there and never take an unnecessary risk. Extreme caution is as unprofessional among the men in dangerous trades as fear would be in a soldier.”127

Three interrelated reforms developed in the Progressive era in response to the industrial safety problems that Crystal Eastman, William B. Hard, The Factory Inspector and others helped publicize — one of them private, and two public. Advances in technology and plant construction continued to improve conditions, but also many companies began to look at accidents as a problem to be solved, not simply an acceptable cost of doing business, and voluntarily instituted their own safety and health programs. Workers' compensation, already established in Europe, was widely adopted in this country, in large part as a preventive measure. Many states adopted administrative rule making, another European idea, to get around the difficulty they had in maintaining up‑to‑date factory laws in the face of changing industrial conditions. Many states established industrial commissions which administered one or both of these programs. At times, industry assisted the public program. These, in turn, gave a powerful boost to the voluntary private movement to reduce accidents.

Before the Pittsburgh Survey, U.S. Steel and its subsidiaries initiated in‑plant safety programs. Several factors contributed to this development. The enormous publicity generated by its formation made U.S. Steel particularly sensitive to public opinion in a period of growing criticism of accidents and deaths in the mills. Centralized records of accidents throughout the corporation made the company more aware of the exact dimensions of the safety problems in its mills. A reduction in intensity of competition in the industry freed up more company resources for workers' welfare measures such as safety. Explosive growth in unions in the early 1900s added pressures to improve conditions.128

Several subsidiaries of U.S. Steel had safety programs of their own even before the creation of the mother company in 1901. Safety quickly found a leading place in the corporate agenda. In 1906, company safety officials began meeting annually at U.S. Steel headquarters in New York. This led to the creation in 1908 of a company‑wide Central Committee of Safety with a strong mandate from company president Elbridge Gary to bring about improved conditions and bring down accident rates. The committee had the power to set safety rules for the plants, perform inspections, and advise plant managers of new safety devices and methods. Local plant safety committees carried these duties out. Backing up this committee, U.S. Steel spent about $750,000 a year on safety improvements. It sought to include the latest safety features in all new plant and equipment and encouraged suppliers of machinery to keep it informed of any new devices or safety features that came along.129