Diseases and Threats

Child Labor Health Effects

Children did not belong in the work force, their young and under developed bodies were affected by the jobs they performed.  Children often fell ill due to the jobs they were employed. Factories that employed children during and after the industrial Revolution were often very dangerous places that resulted in injuries and deaths. Machinery was often running so quickly that children’s little fingers, arms and legs could easily get caught, and the methods to stop the machinery were not quick enough to save a limb in some cases. The conditions in factories were harsh and treatment of the children by adult supervisors was abusive . The death toll in the factories was high, yet there was little concern for children who were injured or even killed because there was always another child to take their place.

The Industrial system dehumanized child labor in the workplace. By degrading their value as a person, the worker was reduced to nothing more than a commodity, on the same level as raw materials used in the factories. If a commodity was damaged or destroyed, it was forgotten and disregarded.  Taking care of employees would be expensive, and as a result, industry bosses payed little attention to the safety concerns of labor, even child labor. There were no required safety standards and employers generally were held harmless when accidents or injuries occurred. The success of the industries depended on this, and the laws enacted guaranteed it.

The amount of injuries and fatalities in the workplace were catastrophic. Accidents such as: collapsed mines, derailed trains, factory explosions, and more. Between 1870 and 1910 there were over 10,000 explosions from inside America’s factories. Dangerous machines and boilers did not have shut-off mechanics built into their mechanisms. As a result, workers’ eyes, ears, hands, and heads were not protected from the growing number of workplace injuries.

Coal Mines

Coal mining companies employed children as young as 5 years old, and used them to slip through the small tunnels and cracks where men could not fit. Children, in some instances were strapped to coal sledges which they dragged while crawling on their hands and knees. Many of the textile factories employed children in their sweatshops. The buildings were usually unsafe and the employers kept the windows and doors locked to prevent employees from leaving prematurely. The risk from fire was enormous.

Photographed by Lewis Hine.
Breaker boys, Hughestown Borough, Pennsylvania Coal Co. One of these is James Leonard, another is Stanley Rasmus. Pittston, Pennsylvania. Mid – A young driver in the Brown Mine. Has been driving one year. Works 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Brown, West Virginia. Right – Breaker boys. Smallest is Angelo Ross. Pittston, Pennsylvania.

Breaker boys separated coal from rocks or other debris. This work was done above ground but still posed hazards to young workers. They sat in a room dark from the thick coal dust for hours. Just like the children working underground, breaker boys inhaled great amounts of coal dust damaging their lungs and causing illness. Breaker boys handled thousands of pieces of coal each day and the sulfur on the coal would cause their fingers to swell and bleed. The sounds of the machines used were deafening and able to crush small hands quickly.

Newly hired children workers.

Newly hired child workers.

Glass Factories

Beyond just the equipment, the environment of a factory was a threat to children where they spewed out fumes and toxins into the enclosed space with little windows.  When inhaled by children these toxins in the air resulted in illness, chronic conditions or diseases which in some cases were fatal. Workers in glass factories suffered burns, which in some cases were severe. Glass workers also were at risk of becoming blind from the intense heat.

Farm Work

Children who worked in rural were not better off as it would seem. Harvesting crops in extreme temperatures for long periods of time was considered normal for these children whom did this work on a day to day basis. Work in agriculture was typically less regulated than factory duties and as a result injuries and long term affects which had gone un-noticed. Farm work was often not considered extraneous for children or dangerous, even though they carried their weight and in some instances, more than their own weight in loads of produce and handled dangerous tools.

Meat Packing Industry

Meatpackers, who were assigned to the pickle rooms, frequently developed an infection from constantly handling cold meat. Workers referred to the painful infection as pickled hands. The skin would crack and open to the bone. The palms and back of the hands would become one aching and oozing sore. Unless the worker stopped handling the meat, the infection would worsen, and even then, it took months for the hands to heal. Some of the deadliest work for both meatpackers, as well as coal miners, had to do with air borne exposures that led to lung infections. Miners who breathed in coal dust for years frequently developed black lung disease. Meatpackers were at risk of coming down with infected lungs when working in areas that contained air particles of ground hair, wool, bone and fertilizer. For both, the lung infections sometimes developed into fibrosis, and in the worst cases, necrosis.

Workplace Accident

Cora Flipse was only fourteen years old when she was killed in a tragic elevator accident at the Bryant Paper Company on February 17, 1900. She and her friend Mary Bouterse were paper sorters at the factory. On a work break, Cora wanted to have some fun and encouraged Mary to ride the work elevator with her. Most work elevators did not have doors, and were primarily used for the transporting of heavy items from floor to floor. In 1900 an elevator in a building was rare. And, for a young girl to ride one would be exciting, especially since it was against the rules. Cora was not able to persuade Mary to jump on the lift. Sadly, Cora’s head projected just outside the elevator, as if to look back at Mary, and as the lift went up Cora’s head got caught between the edge of the lift and floor. Cora was instantly killed. The company did its own investigation, and found that Cora was negligent, which, of course she was. An inspection was done on the elevator and it was widely announced that the elevator was in good working order.