In the 1890’s safety for American workers was not established as a rule of law. Most of the workers were newly arrived immigrants who were willing to live in and work just about anywhere for the opportunity to live in America.
Origins of Industrial Hygiene
The origins of Occupational Health and Safety in the United states can be attributed to the be efforts of Dr. Alice Hamilton (February 27, 1869–September 22, 1970). She was the first U.S. physician to devote herself to research in industrial medicine. Dr. Hamilton graduated from medical school at the University of Michigan in 1893. After accepting a teaching position at the Women’s Medical School of Northwestern University in 1897, she moved to Chicago. She found a place to live in Chicago in a building called Hull-House (a settlement house, where many educated young professionals chose to live. Located in an immigrant neighborhood.) Dr. Hamilton planned to live in a settlement house after completing college. She wanted to work with the impoverished working-class people. Her goal was to join the social movement to improve the lives of the working class. As part of her commitment to living at Hull House Dr. Hamilton opened a well-baby clinic for poor families. As she acquainted herself with the families in the neighborhood, she learned of their afflictions, long term illnesses and the high numbers of widows in the local area. (Greathouse, 2018) The relationships Dr. Hamilton made at Hull House; produced a collaboration with other professionals about the conditions afflicting their neighbors. Dr. Hamilton’s experiences living at Hull-House influenced her work in occupational medicine (https://www.hullhousemuseum.org/, n.d.) The House was founded by Jane Addams and frequented by reformers such as Florence Kelley (Bienen, 2012), a child labor activist, and Julia Lathrop, the first head of the Children’s Bureau. Dr. Hamilton worked closely with all three of these women. (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), 1999) They were believers in a political movement that wanted to support laws which leveled the playing field for all and which protected the middle and poorer classes of people. The Progressives were very successful in getting many changes enacted into law near the turn of the century.
Dr. Hamilton’s life, living in a settlement house was a type of social experiment created to improve the living conditions of the local community. The women she collaborated with were all working professionals with higher education degrees. Each chose a professional research area that contributed to the collection of knowledge of social science and human health statics in Chicago Illinois at the turn of the century. Their contributions led directly to changes in local and federal laws as well as the creation of agencies to help the poor. Living and working together allowed the women to collaborate on publications such as the Hull-House Maps and Papers (https://www.hullhousemuseum.org/, n.d.) and other publications that allowed them to systematically research and communicate their findings with the local people and government.
Jane Addams in Collaboration with Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull-House in 1889. The Social settlement movement began in the 1880s in London in as a response to problems created by urbanized neighborhoods sprouting in Cities with industrial centers. Immigrants flocked to these areas in the United States looking for work. Settlement houses appealed to educated, native born, middle-class and upper-middle class women and men, known as “residents,” to settle in poor urban industrial neighborhoods. By 1900, the U.S. had over 100 settlement houses. By 1911, Chicago had 35. (https://www.hullhousemuseum, 2020) A group of residents also collaborated to publish the Hull-House Maps and Papers in 1895.
Florence Kelley was the first woman factory inspector in the United States, appointed in Illinois by Governor John Peter Altgeld in 1893. A resident of Hull House, Florence Kelley lived in Chicago from 1891 until 1899, leading and participating in a variety of projects. These included: a wage and ethnicity census of the slums and tenements in Chicago; the reporting of cases and contagion in the smallpox epidemic of 1893; the enforcement of the universal primary education laws, and, most importantly, enforcing the provisions of the Illinois Factory Inspection Law of 1893. (Bienen, 2012) Ms. Kelley wrote an article about her experiences inspecting the sweat shops in Chicago during her tenure at Hull-House. She found that most workers in the garment industry worked and lived in unsanitary conditions due to the industry being allowed to use attics and basements of crowded tenements as work areas. The houses were filled with filth and disease easily transferred by vermin living in the walls. Allowing the diseases to be transferred to the occupants of the building, families, workers and ultimately the clothing being sewn. (Richard t. Ely Ph.D., n.d.) She also documented diseases such as dysentery and consumption being spread in industrial factories and the tenements that surrounded them. While living at Hull House Florence Kelley found the time to also earn her law degree from Northwestern in 1895.
In July 1893, while living at Hull House; Julia Lathrop took a position on the Illinois Board of Charities. It was the first position that allowed her to devote her time to work that would come to characterize her career. Lathrop immediately began in person inspections of all 102 county almshouses and farms in the state. Before moving to Hull-House Ms. Lathrop earned her degree from Vassar in 1880. She interrupted her work during the winter of 1893–94 to inspect the county charity institutions in Cook county. Her stark descriptions of the Cook county infirmary, asylum, and other institutions were printed as a chapter in Hull-House Maps and Papers (1895). Lathrop was particularly disturbed by the treatment of the mentally ill, who were often thrown in with the physically ill, with no provision for separating the young and the old. She was a strong advocate of extramural care for mental patients, and later, in 1909, she became a charter member of Clifford W. Beers’ National Committee for Mental Hygiene. In 1901 she resigned from the Illinois Board of Charities in protest the low quality of the staffs of most of the institutions under its purview. She served again on the board from 1905 until her plan for its reorganization was adopted in 1909. (Britannica, 2020)
At Hull-House the residents met in the evenings and weekends to discuss their work and social climate in Chicago. They shared their statistical findings and their writings. The support for their work elevated the quality and understanding of the social changes they where achieving in their era.
Life in the Factories
Work in the local factories was grim. The people working in the factories were independent adults mostly immigrants new to the United States. Due to poverty, they accepted work in dangerous locations to feed their families. There was always the impending fear of being replaced if anyone spoke out about hazardous conditions at work. Also, at the turn of the century any illness that was long term might not have been attributed to working environments. It was standard and common for people to work with large amounts of dangerous chemicals with virtually no protective equipment or safety precautions. Safety equipment generally did not exist, and safety precautions were often not taken with chemicals that commonly harmed workers, such as lead, radioactive radium, mercury, and thousands of other compounds. Factories owners did not concern themselves with chemical safety partly because they did not understand different chemicals and how to work with them safely, and partly because workplace culture and laws did not prioritize such chemical safety. (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), 1999) Alice Hamilton took the time to study the chemicals used in the workplace before her inspections. She would then meet with the operator of the factory to discuss her findings. Dr. Hamilton became the nation’s leading expert in the field and led the way in revolutionizing our understanding of toxic substances in the workplace. (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), 1999)
Collecting data and publishing
Dr. Hamilton saw the effects of neglected and occupational diseases first-hand while living at Hull-House. She observed symptoms from chemical exposures, combined with seeing residents – especially women – of the neighborhood working exhausting hours and living in harsh conditions. Her observations led Dr. Hamilton to study European literature. Europe was far ahead of the U.S. in advancing chemical safety in the workplace. Dr. Hamilton realized that little was written or understood about occupational illnesses in the United States. In 1908, she published her first article about occupational diseases she observed in this country. She presented her ideas and observations in her article Industrial Disease with special Reference to the Trades in which Women are Employed. (Hamilton, Industrial Diseases with Special Reference to the Trades in which Women are Employed, 1908)
In 1909, the Bureau of Labor cooperated with the American Association for Labor Legislation in examining the effects of white phosphorus in the production of matches. The subsequent report, published by the Bureau in 1910, spurred the introduction of legislation banning phosphorus matches from interstate commerce and eventually resulted in passage of a law placing a heavy tax on such matches. (Brunning, 2014) Dr. Hamilton was given the title of “special investigator for industrial diseases,” producing first “White-Lead Industry in the United States, With an Appendix on the Lead Oxide Industry.” She investigated 23 of the 25 U.S. factories known to manufacture white lead and discovered specific cases of lead poisoning, 16 of them fatal, occurring between January 1910 and April 1911 . (Hamilton, The White Lead industry in the United States, with an Appendix on the Lead-Oxide Industry, 1911) She collected data about occupational disorders and their social consequences. Relying primarily on “shoe leather epidemiology”; Dr Hamilton would visit the industrial site in person. She would meet with the factory superintendent, take a tour of the facility. Ask about ill workers and visit the physician in charge and gather data about the poisoned workers. She would also speak to the effected workers. In 1911 The Report of Commission of Occupational Diseases was published with contributions from Dr Hamilton. She worked with a team of Physicians to inspect Industries in Illinois and report back their findings. She was appointed the Lead medical investigator of lead poisoning for the project. Lead is by far the most important of the industrial poisons. First, because it has a far wider use than any other, and secondly, because it is an insidious poison/ being absorbed little by little and accumulating in the system, where it remains a long time, and is very slowly got rid of. Repeated doses, each one so small as to cause no discomfort at all, end by piling up a quantity sufficient to cause a severe attack of poisoning. Even as little as one-sixth of a grain a day is enough, according to certain German authorities. This partly explains why lead-poisoning is so common and also why the symptoms develop so unexpectedly. (Hamilton D. A., Report of Dr. Alice Hamilton on Investigations of the Lead Troubles in Illinois from the Hygienic Standpoint, 1911)
The difficulty of protecting the workmen in our white lead factories is increased. by the fact that the majority of the employees are newly arrived foreigners, many of whom are quite ignorant of the dangers they are exposed to and do not understand explanations given in English. It is desirable to have affixed to the walls of these factories simple instructions in different languages as to the necessity of personnel cleanliness, of the use of a respirator, etc. (Hamilton D. A., Report of Dr. Alice Hamilton on Investigations of the Lead Troubles in Illinois from the Hygienic Standpoint, 1911) She found that many migrants would take employment in a dangerous facility without understanding the dangers surrounding them. They would not understand the dangers of the dust in the air, the need to wash their hands and eat far away from the work areas. The turnover of non-English speaking workers was enormous. She discovered lead dust to be a problem in smelting and refining, house paints, enamels, cut glass and storage batteries.
She was creator of the emerging laboratory science of toxicology, she pioneered occupational epidemiology and industrial hygiene in the United States. Her findings were so scientifically persuasive that they caused sweeping reforms, both voluntary and regulatory, to improve the health the of workers. (Greathouse, 2018) Dr. Hamilton remained active for many years working for the government and teaching Occupational Hygiene at Harvard as an Associate Professor. (Moye, 1986) She was the first women to become a faculty member at Harvard. she published the first Industrial Hygiene Textbook in the United States, following it in 1934 with Industrial Toxicology. She retired from teaching in 1935. She remained active in government and Industrial hygiene for many years. She lived to be one hundred and one years of age. The OSH act was ratified into law the same year as her death 1970.
To learn more about life of the immigrants lives in the 1890’s read Jacob Riis book How the Other Half Lives, by Jacob A. Riis: a Project Gutenberg eBook. He was a photo Journalist who documented the lives of people living in the tenement’s in New York city.
RIIS, J. A. (2019). HOW THE OTHER HALF LIVES: Studies among the tenements of new york. Place of publication not identified, NY: WWW BNPUBLISHING COM.
Bienen, L. (2012). https://florencekelley.northwestern.edu. Retrieved from The Life and Times of Florence Kelley: https://florencekelley.northwestern.edu/florence/
Britannica, T. E. (2020, June 25). Julia Clifford Lathrop Social Worker. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Julia-Clifford-Lathrop
Brunning, A. (2014, November 20). The Chemistry of Matches. Retrieved from Explorations of everyday compounds: https://www.compoundchem.com/2014/11/20/matches/
Greathouse, E. (2018, June 11). Dr. Alice Hamilton: a Hoosier Woman Who Established an Entirely New Field of Life-Saving Science in Early 1900s America. Retrieved from Illinois Science Council: https://www.illinoisscience.org/2018/06/dr-alice-hamilton/
Hamilton, A. (1943). Exploring the Dangerous Trades The Autobiography. Boston: Little Brown and Company.
Hamilton, D. A. (1908, September 5). Industrical Diseases with Special Reference to the Trades in which Woment are Employed. Charities and The Commons: 20, pp. 655-9.
Hamilton, D. A. (1911, January). Report of Dr Alice Hamilton on Investigations of the Lead Troubles in Illinios from the Hyfienic Standpoint. Report of Commission on Occupational Diseases, pp. 21-47. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/cu31924002339491/page/n7/mode/2up
Hamilton, D. A. (1911, July 11). The White Lead industry in the United States, with an Appendix on the Lead-Oxide Industry. Bulliton for the Burough of Labor, pp. 189-259.
https://www.hullhousemuseum. (2020). Retrieved from About Jame Adams and the Hull-House Settlement: https://www.hullhousemuseum.org/about-jane-addams/
https://www.hullhousemuseum.org/. (n.d.). Retrieved from About Jane Adams: https://www.hullhousemuseum.org/about-jane-addams/
Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). (1999, June 10). Retrieved from www.cdc.gov: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/MM4822bx.HTM
Moye, W. T. (1986, 6 1). Burough of Labor statistics. Monthly Labor Review. Retrieved from BLS and Alice Hamilton: Pionees in Industrial Health: https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/1986/06/art4full.pdf
Professor Dr Th, S. a. (1912, May). List of Industrial Poisons and other substances Injurious to tHealth found in Industrial Processes, Phosphorus poisoning in the match industry in the United States, Bureau Report. Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor, Nos. 1 – 100 : May 1912 : Bulletin of the United States Bureau of Labor, No. 100, Volume XXIV, p. 735.
Richard t. Ely Ph.D. (n.d.). Hull-House Maps and Papers, Library of Economics and Politics Number 5. Retrieved from The Life and Times of Florence Kelley; Hull House Maps and Papers: https://florencekelley.northwestern.edu/documents/fk_01643285/
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