How did health and safety change during the Gilded Age?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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During what Mark Twain satirically dubbed the Gilded Age, a product of the Industrial Revolution, working conditions were extremely poor as employers turned to mass production. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, employers ran small shops or farms and the employees were constantly under the supervision of the employers. With the dawning of the Industrial Revolution, which led to the Gilded Age, mass production became possible through the creation of large manufacturing plants and factories, and employers very seldom ever saw their employees, leaving care of the employees to management instead. In the Gilded Age, since employers placed more value on profit than on conditions, the busier and larger places of work became, the more dangerous they also became.

Since employers placed more value in profit, they paid little attention to such things as faulty equipment and only cared that the job was performed. Factory work became very dangerous, often as a result of faulty equipment. Steel factories were the most dangerous of all. Molten steel often spilled, raining down on the workers, causing severe injuries and death. If the molten steel landed on wet sand, it caused explosions, resulting in fire, more injuries, and more deaths. By 1900, the number of deaths occurring per year in factory jobs were 25-35,000, and the number of injuries were 1 million (Sage American History, "The War Between Capital and Labor"). The train industry was also very dangerous due to faulty equipment, leading to many train crashes and many deaths.

In addition, due to an emphasis on profit, employers of the Gilded Age intentionally kept wages very low. They justified low wages using David Ricardo's "Iron Law of Wages," which asserted that higher wages would result in more children; more children would result in fewer jobs in the long run and, therefore, even lower wages in the future (Sage American History). Due to the low wages, impoverished women and children were forced to work for extra household income, and women and children were treated very poorly.