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History of Workplace Safety in the United States, 1880-1970

Mark Aldrich, Smith College

The dangers of work are usually measured by the number of injuries or fatalities occurring to a group of workers, usually over a period of one year. 1 Over the past century such measures reveal a striking improvement in the safety of work in all the advanced countries. In part this has been the result of the gradual shift of jobs from relatively dangerous goods production such as farming, fishing, logging, mining, and manufacturing into such comparatively safe work as retail trade and services. But even the dangerous trades are now far safer than they were in 1900. To take but one example, mining today remains a comparatively risky activity. Its annual fatality rate is about nine for every one hundred thousand miners employed. A century ago in 1900 about three hundred out of every one hundred thousand miners were killed on the job each year. 2

The Nineteenth Century

Before the late nineteenth century we know little about the safety of American workplaces because contemporaries cared little about it. As a result, only fragmentary information exists prior to the 1880s. Pre-industrial laborers faced risks from animals and hand tools, ladders and stairs. Industrialization substituted steam engines for animals, machines for hand tools, and elevators for ladders. But whether these new technologies generally worsened the dangers of work is unclear. What is clear is that nowhere was the new work associated with the industrial revolution more dangerous than in America.

US Was Unusually Dangerous

Americans modified the path of industrialization that had been pioneered in Britain to fit the particular geographic and economic circumstances of the American continent. Reflecting the high wages and vast natural resources of a new continent, this American system encouraged use of labor saving machines and processes. These developments occurred within a legal and regulatory climate that diminished employer’s interest in safety. As a result, Americans developed production methods that were both highly productive and often very dangerous. 3

Accidents Were “Cheap”

While workers injured on the job or their heirs might sue employers for damages, winning proved difficult. Where employers could show that the worker had assumed the risk, or had been injured by the actions of a fellow employee, or had himself been partly at fault, courts would usually deny liability. A number or surveys taken about 1900 showed that only about half of all workers fatally injured recovered anything and their average compensation only amounted to about half a year’s pay. Because accidents were so cheap, American industrial methods developed with little reference to their safety. 4


Nowhere was the American system more dangerous than in early mining. In Britain, coal seams were deep and coal expensive. As a result, British mines used mining methods that recovered nearly all of the coal because they used waste rock to hold up the roof. British methods also concentrated the working, making supervision easy, and required little blasting. American coal deposits by contrast, were both vast and near the surface; they could be tapped cheaply using techniques known as “room and pillar” mining. Such methods used coal pillars and timber to hold up the roof, because timber and coal were cheap. Since miners worked in separate rooms, labor supervision was difficult and much blasting was required to bring down the coal. Miners themselves were by no means blameless; most were paid by the ton, and when safety interfered with production, safety often took a back seat. For such reasons, American methods yielded more coal per worker than did European techniques, but they were far more dangerous, and toward the end of the nineteenth century, the dangers worsened (see Table 1).5

Table 1
British and American Mine Safety, 1890 -1904
(Fatality rates per Thousand Workers per Year)

Years American Anthracite American Bituminous Great Britain
1890-1894 3.29 2.52 1.61
1900-1904 3.13 3.53 1.28

Source: British data from Great Britain, General Report. Other data from Aldrich, Safety First.


Nineteenth century American railroads were also comparatively dangerous to their workers – and their passengers as well – and for similar reasons. Vast North American distances and low population density turned American carriers into predominantly freight haulers – and freight was far more dangerous to workers than passenger traffic, for men had to go in between moving cars for coupling and uncoupling and ride the cars to work brakes. The thin traffic and high wages also forced American carriers to economize on both capital and labor. Accordingly, American carriers were poorly built and used few signals, both of which resulted in many derailments and collisions. Such conditions made American railroad work far more dangerous than that in Britain (see Table 2).6

Table 2
Comparative Safety of British and American Railroad Workers, 1889 – 1901
(Fatality Rates per Thousand Workers per Year)

1889 1895 1901
British railroad workers
All causes
1.14 0.95 0.89
British trainmena
All causes
4.26 3.22 2.21
Coupling 0.94 0.83 0.74
American Railroad workers
All causes
2.67 2.31 2.50
American trainmen
All causes
8.52 6.45 7.35
Coupling 1.73c 1.20 0.78
Brakingb 3.25c 2.44 2.03

Source: Aldrich, Safety First, Table 1 and Great Britain Board of Trade, General Report.


Note: Death rates are per thousand employees.
a. Guards, brakemen, and shunters.
b. Deaths from falls from cars and striking overhead obstructions.


American manufacturing also developed in a distinctively American fashion that substituted power and machinery for labor and manufactured products with interchangeable arts for ease in mass production. Whether American methods were less safe than those in Europe is unclear but by 1900 they were extraordinarily risky by modern standards, for machines and power sources were largely unguarded. And while competition encouraged factory managers to strive for ever-increased output, they showed little interest in improving safety.7

Worker and Employer Responses

Workers and firms responded to these dangers in a number of ways. Some workers simply left jobs they felt were too dangerous, and risky jobs may have had to offer higher pay to attract workers. After the Civil War life and accident insurance companies expanded, and some workers purchased insurance or set aside savings to offset the income risks from death or injury. Some unions and fraternal organizations also offered their members insurance. Railroads and some mines also developed hospital and insurance plans to care for injured workers while many carriers provided jobs for all their injured men. 8

Improving safety, 1910-1939

Public efforts to improve safety date from the very beginnings of industrialization. States established railroad regulatory commissions as early as the 1840s. But while most of the commissions were intended to improve safety, they had few powers and were rarely able to exert much influence on working conditions. Similarly, the first state mining commission began in Pennsylvania in 1869, and other states soon followed. Yet most of the early commissions were ineffectual and as noted safety actually deteriorated after the Civil War. Factory commissions also dated from but most were understaffed and they too had little power.9


The most successful effort to improve work safety during the nineteenth century began on the railroads in the 1880s as a small band of railroad regulators, workers, and managers began to campaign for the development of better brakes and couplers for freight cars. In response George Westinghouse modified his passenger train air brake in about 1887 so it would work on long freights, while at roughly the same time Ely Janney developed an automatic car coupler. For the railroads such equipment meant not only better safety, but also higher productivity and after 1888 they began to deploy it. The process was given a boost in 1889-1890 when the newly-formed Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) published its first accident statistics. They demonstrated conclusively the extraordinary risks to trainmen from coupling and riding freight (Table 2). In 1893 Congress responded, passing the Safety Appliance Act, which mandated use of such equipment. It was the first federal law intended primarily to improve work safety, and by 1900 when the new equipment was widely diffused, risks to trainmen had fallen dramatically.10

Federal Safety Regulation

In the years between 1900 and World War I, a rather strange band of Progressive reformers, muckraking journalists, businessmen, and labor unions pressed for changes in many areas of American life. These years saw the founding of the Federal Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Reserve System and much else. Work safety also became of increased public concern and the first important developments came once again on the railroads. Unions representing trainmen had been impressed by the safety appliance act of 1893 and after 1900 they campaigned for more of the same. In response Congress passed a host of regulations governing the safety of locomotives and freight cars. While most of these specific regulations were probably modestly beneficial, collectively their impact was small because unlike the rules governing automatic couplers and air brakes they addressed rather minor risks.11

In 1910 Congress also established the Bureau of Mines in response to a series of disastrous and increasingly frequent explosions. The Bureau was to be a scientific, not a regulatory body and it was intended to discover and disseminate new knowledge on ways to improve mine safety.12

Workers’ Compensation Laws Enacted

Far more important were new laws that raised the cost of accidents to employers. In 1908 Congress passed a federal employers’ liability law that applied to railroad workers in interstate commerce and sharply limited defenses an employee could claim. Worker fatalities that had once cost the railroads perhaps $200 now cost $2,000. Two years later in 1910, New York became the first state to pass a workmen’s compensation law. This was a European idea. Instead of requiring injured workers to sue for damages in court and prove the employer was negligent, the new law automatically compensated all injuries at a fixed rate. Compensation appealed to businesses because it made costs more predictable and reduced labor strife. To reformers and unions it promised greater and more certain benefits. Samuel Gompers, leader of the American Federation of Labor had studied the effects of compensation in Germany. He was impressed with how it stimulated business interest in safety, he said. Between 1911 and 1921 forty-four states passed compensation laws.13

Employers Become Interested in Safety

The sharp rise in accident costs that resulted from compensation laws and tighter employers’ liability initiated the modern concern with work safety and initiated the long-term decline in work accidents and injuries. Large firms in railroading, mining, manufacturing and elsewhere suddenly became interested in safety. Companies began to guard machines and power sources while machinery makers developed safer designs. Managers began to look for hidden dangers at work, and to require that workers wear hard hats and safety glasses. They also set up safety departments run by engineers and safety committees that included both workers and managers. In 1913 companies founded the National Safety Council to pool information. Government agencies such as the Bureau of Mines and National Bureau of Standards provided scientific support while universities also researched safety problems for firms and industries14

Accident Rates Begin to Fall Steadily

During the years between World War I and World War II the combination of higher accident costs along with the institutionalization of safety concerns in large firms began to show results. Railroad employee fatality rates declined steadily after 1910 and at some large companies such as DuPont and whole industries such as steel making (see Table 3) safety also improved dramatically. Largely independent changes in technology and labor markets also contributed to safety as well. The decline in labor turnover meant fewer new employees who were relatively likely to get hurt, while the spread of factory electrification not only improved lighting but reduced the dangers from power transmission as well. In coal mining the shift from underground work to strip mining also improved safety. Collectively these long-term forces reduced manufacturing injury rates about 38 percent between 1926 and 1939 (see Table 4).15

Table 3
Steel Industry fatality and Injury rates, 1910-1939
(Rates are per million manhours)

Period Fatality rate Injury Rate
1910-1913 0.40 44.1
1937-1939 0.13 11.7

Pattern of Improvement Was Uneven

Yet the pattern of improvement was uneven, both over time and among firms and industries. Safety still deteriorated in times of economic boon when factories mines and railroads were worked to the limit and labor turnover rose. Nor were small companies as successful in reducing risks, for they paid essentially the same compensation insurance premium irrespective of their accident rate, and so the new laws had little effect there. Underground coal mining accidents also showed only modest improvement. Safety was also expensive in coal and many firms were small and saw little payoff from a lower accident rate. The one source of danger that did decline was mine explosions, which diminished in response to technologies developed by the Bureau of Mines. Ironically, however, in 1940 six disastrous blasts that killed 276 men finally led to federal mine inspection in 1941.16

Table 4
Work Injury Rates, Manufacturing and Coal Mining, 1926-1970
(Per Million Manhours)


Year Manufacturing Coal Mining
1926 24.2
1931 18.9 89.9
1939 14.9 69.5
1945 18.6 60.7
1950 14.7 53.3
1960 12.0 43.4
1970 15.2 42.6

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington, 1975), Series D-1029 and D-1031.

Postwar Trends, 1945-1970

The economic boon and associated labor turnover during World War II worsened work safety in nearly all areas of the economy, but after 1945 accidents again declined as long-term forces reasserted themselves (Table 4). In addition, after World War II newly powerful labor unions played an increasingly important role in work safety. In the 1960s however economic expansion again led to rising injury rates and the resulting political pressures led Congress to establish the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration in 1970. The continuing problem of mine explosions also led to the foundation of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) that same year. The work of these agencies had been controversial but on balance they have contributed to the continuing reductions in work injuries after 1970.17

References and Further Reading

Aldrich, Mark. Safety First: Technology, Labor and Business in the Building of Work Safety, 1870-1939. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Aldrich, Mark. “Preventing ‘The Needless Peril of the Coal Mine': the Bureau of Mines and the Campaign Against Coal Mine Explosions, 1910-1940.” Technology and Culture 36, no. 3 (1995): 483-518.

Aldrich, Mark. “The Peril of the Broken Rail: the Carriers, the Steel Companies, and Rail Technology, 1900-1945.” Technology and Culture 40, no. 2 (1999): 263-291

Aldrich, Mark. “Train Wrecks to Typhoid Fever: The Development of Railroad Medicine Organizations, 1850 -World War I.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 75, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 254-89.

Derickson Alan. “Participative Regulation of Hazardous Working Conditions: Safety Committees of the United Mine Workers of America,” Labor Studies Journal 18, no. 2 (1993): 25-38.

Dix, Keith. Work Relations in the Coal Industry: The Hand Loading Era. Morgantown: University of West Virginia Press, 1977. The best discussion of coalmine work for this period.

Dix, Keith. What’s a Coal Miner to Do? Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1988. The best discussion of coal mine labor during the era of mechanization.

Fairris, David. “From Exit to Voice in Shopfloor Governance: The Case of Company Unions.” Business History Review 69, no. 4 (1995): 494-529.

Fairris, David. “Institutional Change in Shopfloor Governance and the Trajectory of Postwar Injury Rates in U.S. Manufacturing, 1946-1970.” Industrial and Labor Relations Review 51, no. 2 (1998): 187-203.

Fishback, Price. Soft Coal Hard Choices: The Economic Welfare of Bituminous Coal Miners, 1890-1930. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. The best economic analysis of the labor market for coalmine workers.

Fishback, Price and Shawn Kantor. A Prelude to the Welfare State: The Origins of Workers’ Compensation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. The best discussions of how employers’ liability rules worked.

Graebner, William. Coal Mining Safety in the Progressive Period. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1976.

Great Britain Board of Trade. General Report upon the Accidents that Have Occurred on Railways of the United Kingdom during the Year 1901. London, HMSO, 1902.

Great Britain Home Office Chief Inspector of Mines. General Report with Statistics for 1914, Part I. London: HMSO, 1915.

Hounshell, David. From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984.

Humphrey, H. B. “Historical Summary of Coal-Mine Explosions in the United States — 1810-1958.” United States Bureau of Mines Bulletin 586 (1960).

Kirkland, Edward. Men, Cities, and Transportation. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948, Discusses railroad regulation and safety in New England.

Lankton, Larry. Cradle to Grave: Life, Work, and Death in Michigan Copper Mines. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Licht, Walter. Working for the Railroad. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Long, Priscilla. Where the Sun Never Shines. New York: Paragon, 1989. Covers coal mine safety at the end of the nineteenth century.

Mendeloff, John. Regulating Safety: An Economic and Political Analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Policy. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1979. An accessible modern discussion of safety under OSHA.

National Academy of Sciences. Toward Safer Underground Coal Mines. Washington, DC: NAS, 1982.

Rogers, Donald. “From Common Law to Factory Laws: The Transformation of Workplace Safety Law in Wisconsin before Progressivism.” American Journal of Legal History (1995): 177-213.

Root, Norman and Daley, Judy. “Are Women Safer Workers? A New Look at the Data.” Monthly Labor Review 103, no. 9 (1980): 3-10.

Rosenberg, Nathan. Technology and American Economic Growth. New York: Harper and Row, 1972. Analyzes the forces shaping American technology.

Rosner, David and Gerald Markowity, editors. Dying for Work. Blomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Shaw, Robert. Down Brakes: A History of Railroad Accidents, Safety Precautions, and Operating Practices in the United States of America. London: P. R. Macmillan. 1961.

Trachenberg, Alexander. The History of Legislation for the Protection of Coal Miners in Pennsylvania, 1824 – 1915. New York: International Publishers. 1942.

U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970. Washington, DC, 1975.

Usselman, Steven. “Air Brakes for Freight Trains: Technological Innovation in the American Railroad Industry, 1869-1900.” Business History Review 58 (1984): 30-50.

Viscusi, W. Kip. Risk By Choice: Regulating Health and Safety in the Workplace. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983. The most readable treatment of modern safety issues by a leading scholar.

Wallace, Anthony. Saint Clair. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. Provides a superb discussion of early anthracite mining and safety.

Whaples, Robert and David Buffum. “Fraternalism, Paternalism, the Family and the Market: Insurance a Century Ago.” Social Science History 15 (1991): 97-122.

White, John. The American Railroad Freight Car. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. The definitive history of freight car technology.

Whiteside, James. Regulating Danger: The Struggle for Mine Safety in the Rocky Mountain Coal Industry. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990.

Wokutch, Richard. Worker Protection Japanese Style: Occupational Safety and Health in the Auto Industry. Ithaca, NY: ILR, 1992

Worrall, John, editor. Safety and the Work Force: Incentives and Disincentives in Workers’ Compensation. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1983.

1 Injuries or fatalities are expressed as rates. For example, if ten workers are injured out of 450 workers during a year, the rate would be .006666. For readability it might be expressed as 6.67 per thousand or 666.7 per hundred thousand workers. Rates may also be expressed per million workhours. Thus if the average work year is 2000 hours, ten injuries in 450 workers results in [10/450×2000]x1,000,000 = 11.1 injuries per million hours worked.

2 For statistics on work injuries from 1922-1970 see U.S. Department of Commerce, Historical Statistics, Series 1029-1036. For earlier data are in Aldrich, Safety First, Appendix 1-3.

3 Hounshell, American System. Rosenberg, Technology,. Aldrich, Safety First.

4 On the workings of the employers’ liability system see Fishback and Kantor, A Prelude, chapter 2

5 Dix, Work Relations, and his What’s a Coal Miner to Do? Wallace, Saint Clair, is a superb discussion of early anthracite mining and safety. Long, Where the Sun, Fishback, Soft Coal, chapters 1, 2, and 7. Humphrey, “Historical Summary.” Aldrich, Safety First, chapter 2.

6 Aldrich, Safety First chapter 1.

7 Aldrich, Safety First chapter 3

8 Fishback and Kantor, A Prelude, chapter 3, discusses higher pay for risky jobs as well as worker savings and accident insurance See also Whaples and Buffum, “Fraternalism, Paternalism.” Aldrich, ” Train Wrecks to Typhoid Fever.”

9Kirkland, Men, Cities. Trachenberg, The History of Legislation Whiteside, Regulating Danger. An early discussion of factory legislation is in Susan Kingsbury, ed.,xxxxx. Rogers,” From Common Law.”

10 On the evolution of freight car technology see White, American Railroad Freight Car, Usselman “Air Brakes for Freight trains,” and Aldrich, Safety First, chapter 1. Shaw, Down Brakes, discusses causes of train accidents.

11 Details of these regulations may be found in Aldrich, Safety First, chapter 5.

12 Graebner, Coal-Mining Safety, Aldrich, “‘The Needless Peril.”

13 On the origins of these laws see Fishback and Kantor, A Prelude, and the sources cited therein.

14 For assessments of the impact of early compensation laws see Aldrich, Safety First, chapter 5 and Fishback and Kantor, A Prelude, chapter 3. Compensation in the modern economy is discussed in Worrall, Safety and the Work Force. Government and other scientific work that promoted safety on railroads and in coal mining are discussed in Aldrich, “‘The Needless Peril’,” and “The Broken Rail.”

15 Farris, “From Exit to Voice.”

16 Aldrich, “‘Needless Peril,” and Humphrey

17 Derickson, “Participative Regulation” and Fairris, “Institutional Change,” also emphasize the role of union and shop floor issues in shaping safety during these years. Much of the modern literature on safety is highly quantitative. For readable discussions see Mendeloff, Regulating Safety (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1979), and

Citation: Aldrich, Mark. “History of Workplace Safety in the United States, 1880-1970″. EH.Net Encyclopedia, edited by Robert Whaples. August 14, 2001. URL