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Workplace safety laws have come a long way since the early days of worker safety. Once upon a time, workers didn’t have any reasonable expectation of protection or safe conditions, never mind laws geared toward worker safety.
We have many of the safety laws we have now precisely because of the poor state of worker safety before them. To understand where we’ve been and how far we’ve come, let’s take a closer look at workplace safety laws in the 1900s.
During the industrialization era, between the Civil War and World War I, the outlook for the average worker was grim. As workplaces evolved to move faster and produce more, workers were placed in new and increasingly dangerous conditions. Serious workplace accidents were frequent occurrences, eventually prompting the government to take action.
The earliest systematic survey of workplace fatalities covered Allegheny County, Pennsylvania from July 1906 to June 1907. In that year, in that county alone, 526 workers died in workplace accidents, 195 of them steelworkers. For context, in 1997 only 17 steelworker deaths occurred nationwide.
At that time, employers were the ones with power, and the government had very little (if any) role in governing what employers could or could not do. Worker protection was the last thing on anyone’s mind.
This resulted in a number of practices that we would now consider unacceptable. Child labor, for example, was well-entrenched in this period.
The U.S. inherited its child labor views and policies from colonial England, which viewed idle children as a source of crime and poverty. To combat this, working-class children were often placed in apprenticeships, which was viewed as an act of charity.
The 1900 Census found that children between the ages of 10 and 15 made up 6% of the nation’s labor force (1.75 million children). The first nationwide attempt to even examine the impact of child labor was the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) established in 1904. The NCLC initially pushed for state reform of child labor practices, but due to scattershot implementation, the NCLC eventually pushed for nationwide reform in 1912.
The first national child labor law was the Keating-Owen Child Labor Act of 1916, which banned the sale of products manufactured by children under 14 and heavily restricted labor for children under 16.
Unfortunately, discrimination was not just widespread in the 1900s – it was widely encouraged.
One of the most dramatic shifts in the workplace in the last 100 years is the role of women. In early America, very few women entered the workforce, and it wasn’t until 1950 that one-third of women ages 16 and over were in the labor force.
An area of pervasive inequality (which exists to this day) is pay inequality, though the gap was significantly higher in the 1900s than today. The concept of equal pay for equal work was promoted at the federal level as early as 1898, but it was not codified into law until the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which mandated that men and women had to be paid the same amount for doing the same work.
Workplace safety laws in the 1900s were far from favorable to workers, but they laid the foundation for the safety laws we have today. And while employers of the 1900s had little enforcement to bring them into compliance, that’s no longer the case today.
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