Health in America
Health in America
Health in America

Industrial Hazards

Coal miners at work in Bethlehem mine, Barrackville, WV.

In the 19th century, assembly-line speed-ups and rote tasks as well as exposure to chemical toxins, metallic and organic dusts, and unprotected machinery, made the American workplace among the most dangerous in the world. In repeated critiques, a broad coalition of reformers, radicals, settlement house workers and journalists compared the toll of industrial accidents to an undeclared war.

This concern became a full-fledged movement in 1911 when 146 young Jewish and Italian immigrant women at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York died when they were trapped in a fire because management had locked the doors to prevent them from taking breaks. Mass protests led to improvements in workplace conditions and the eventual rise of a union movement.

But tragedy continued to haunt immigrant workers. In the 1910s and 1920s, young immigrant women called "radium girls," painted radium on luminous wristwatches, accidentally ingesting it as they "lip-pointed" their brushes. These young women suffered radiation poisoning, which led to anemia, bone breakage, bone cancer and occasionally death.

Radium girls from the Arizona State University production of “These Shining Lives,” portraying the women of the Radium Dial Company, 2010.

Coal fueled the industrial revolution, but mining was a dangerous occupation. In 1907, a methane explosion in a West Virginia mine killed 362 workers. Many of the survivors would later contract silicosis and "black lung." John L. Lewis, president of United Mine Workers of America, engaged in a decades-long struggle for safer working conditions and higher wages for miners.

Throughout the 20th century, toxins such as asbestos, lead paint and DDT threatened the health of workers and communities. With the publication of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" in 1962, environmental and worker safety movements, spearheaded by Professor Barry Commoner and Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers Union leader Tony Mazzocchi, forced government and business to take action. In 1970, the federal government responded by creating the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

But these agencies can be effective only if they have regulations and the resources to enforce them. The explosion and leak resulting from BP's Deepwater Horizon oil platform in 2010 and the apparent failures of the Mineral Management Service in its regulation enforcement proved once again that industrial hazards continue to require concerted action on the part of the citizenry.

Interior of the Magnolia, MS, Cotton Mills spinning room, 1911.