Child workers and workplace accidents: What was the price paid for industrializing America?


It was Friday morning the 28th of August, 1885 and Michael Markham, age 30, was eager to get to work. He was proud of his job at the screw factory in New Britain, Connecticut. Michael was a loyal and experienced employee, and he had worked his way up to be in charge of the largest machine in the factory called the nail heading machine. Soon after arriving that morning, however, he was involved in a terrible accident. This is how the Boston Herald reported what happened, “He was bending down to see how it was running, and his head was caught between the balance wheel and bent over sides breaking his neck.” Before others could switch off the machine, Michael’s body was badly mangled and he died quickly. He was survived by his widowed mother and a sister. Michael was the family’s only source of income. The paper stated, “he lost his life from an over assurance of his ability.” The New York Times said that the worker’s death was due to his own “carelessness.” Other news articles echoed similar condemnation – – that Michael Markham accidentally killed himself.

In industrial America, the story of Michael Markham was one of many frequent tales of blaming the victim. Ten men were killed in a mining accident in Hibbing, Minnesota and the local headline was “Company Not Blamed for the Clark Mine Disaster, One of the Victims Was Probably Responsible.” The hastily prepared Commissioners Report determined, and without any proof, that one of the miners was probably smoking near dynamite. Placing blame, especially publicly, was part of a system of protecting the industrial bosses from having to deal with workers’ problems. More importantly, the system was structured to dehumanize workers. By erasing their human value, the worker was reduced to nothing more than a commodity, the same as the raw materials used in the factories. If a commodity was damaged or destroyed, it was discarded and forgotten. In industrial America, workers had no voice in the workplace. Public pressure was the enemy to the industrialist.Taking care of workers would be expensive, possibly disastrous; and a door industry bosses were determined to keep closed. There were no required safety standards and employers generally were held harmless when accidents or injuries occurred. The success of the industries depended on that silence, and the laws of the land practically guaranteed it.

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