Perils of Modern Industry

In the February 1911 issue of the SOCIALIST STANDARD, under the heading of “More Miners Murdered,” it was clearly shown how, year after year, members of the working class whose misfortune it is to be obliged to spend the greater portion of their lives in coal-mines, are deliberately sacrificed on the altar of Profit ; are maimed and murdered, so that more profit may accrue to those employing them. That this condition of things does not appertain only to the miners, but extends to workers in practically every branch of industry, is apparent from a perusal of a “Report of the Departmental Committee on Accidents in Places under the Factory and Workshop Acts,” recently published by order of the Home Office.

The Committee was appointed in 1908 by the then Home Secretary, who was compelled to take this step owing to the enormous yearly increase in the number of reported accidents in factories and workshops that had taken place. The total rose from 79,020 in 1900 to 100,609 in 1905, while between 1905 and 1907 there was a fur¬ther striking increase, the figures being :

Total Fatal
1905 100,609 1,063
1906 111,904 1,116
1907 124,325 1,179

The conclusions arrived at by the Committee as to the causes of the increase appear to have been made as vague as possible. But we read in Section IV. “Causes Tending to Increase or Decrease Accident Risk” :

“A considerable amount of evidence was given to show that work was now done at a greater speed and higher pressure than former¬ly.” And further that “Much of the increase was attributed to the general raising of the standard of effort in all spheres of life.” Evidence was given that in the textile trades machines run faster than formerly ; in wool weaving, for example, looms working at 80 picks a minute were thought fast ten years ago, but now the new ones run at 100 picks a minute.

As regards engineering, the increased speed of cutting tools was referred to, and evidence was given showing that the speed of punching, shearing, bending, and squeezing machines had increased. In iron and steel works, and in tin-plate works, the Committee were told that improved machinery had led to increased speed.

There was something of a diversity of opinion as regards Piece Work, but generally the evidence was that piece work, task work, and bonus systems of payment tended to cause undue hurry.

In “(c) ‘Driving’ by Employers” we read : “Certain representatives of the workpeople asserted that in some cases undue pressure was exerted by employers, causing men to take risks they otherwise would not have taken,” and “that in weaving factories the practice of giving overlookers a bonus on the output, and of showing in the sheds the earnings of each weaver, tended to ‘driving,’ and was spoken of generally as increasing the accident risk.”

With regard to this section, the Committee arrive at the conclusion that “The desire of the employers to get as good an output as possible is natural, but the evidence of undue pressure is slight.” But then, surprisingly enough, they go on to say : “On the whole, we are of opinion that there is increased speed and pressure in a number of industries, and this is probably a cause operating to produce an appreciable increase in the accident risk.” How in the world they reconcile these two opposing statements probably they alone can tell. The present writer frankly confesses his inability to do so.

Evidence was given showing the tendency to employ young persons and children on work which was formerly in the hands of experienced workmen. Mention is made in the report of lads being employed in the manipulation of circular saws and drilling and planing machines, and the danger of allowing lads under sixteen to put belts on machines is alluded to. Comment was also made by certain of the witnesses examined on the dangers due to the employment of boys in shipbuilding and in driving cranes, and the practice of employing boys to carry ladles full of molten metal in iron foundries was in some instances deprecated by those giving evidence. It is plainly shown that all round the circle of industry men are being increasingly superseded by the cheap labour of immature and inexperienced youngsters. More profit is, of course, to be made out of boy labour, and “the desire of the employers to get as good an output as possible is natural.” If, in attaining this ideal, a few score or a few thousand lives and limbs are sacrificed, the employers, doubtless, are consoled by the knowledge that they are, after all, only working-class lives and limbs, and are doubly consoled by the thought that, however great the increased number of incapacitated workers may be, the prolificacy of the working class is still such as to provide more than sufficient labour-power for the maintenance of capitalism and increased profit to the masters.

In further sections of the report it is shown that neglect on the part of the employers to guard machinery, the further neglect to maintain in good order such guards as have been erected, the crowding of machinery too close together, defective and slippery floors, and inadequate lighting, all contribute, in a marked degree, toward the increase in the number of reported accidents.

When we come to Section XVI., “The Lifting and Carrying of Weights,” we find a considerable amount of evidence as to injuries received in the lifting and carrying of heavy and bulky burdens and weights. For example, men employed in weaving factories have to carry beams weighing from 190 to 260 lbs. These sometimes have to be carried up and down flights of steps and along considerable distances, in some cases having to be lifted over the front of the loom owing to the crowded state of the machinery. The heavier beams are usually carried by two men, but it often happens that one man is obliged to do so. The workmen’s witnesses from both the cotton and the woollen trades laid much stress on the fact that strains and ruptures from the lifting and carrying of these beams are not infrequent.

With regard to women-workers, the Committee were told that in weaving sheds women were liable to injury in three ways :

First, in moving the weights on the levers at the back of the looms. In the older looms the weaver may reach down in a space that is often very narrow, sometimes not more than three or four inches broad, and move weights of 56 lbs up or down the lever.

Secondly, in some factories they assist the overlooker or tackler in placing the beams in the looms.

Thirdly, they sometimes carry heavy pieces of cloth, weighing up to 200 lbs.

“The Burnley Certifying Surgeon informed us [i.e., the Committee] that he had known of cases of premature confinement through women lifting heavy weights in factories, and there appears to be a general impression that women often receive in this way injuries not apparent at the time but causing trouble in later life.”

The Chairman of the Cotton Trade Insurance Association furnished a table of accidents to female weavers “owing to lifting loom weights causing ruptures, sprained backs, and internal injuries.”

Cases were cited of children of twelve who had been found carrying 18, 26, and 39 lbs.; girls of thirteen, 18 and 29 lbs. The Certifying Surgeon for Burnley said that in that town children carry up to 25 lbs., and young persons over 30 lbs.; he thought that the carrying of pieces of cloth up stairs by children was a cause of heart strain.

The attention of the Committee was also called to the statement by the Preston inspector that he had found children carrying heavy “cuts” of cloth on one shoulder, and, on enquiring of the medical superintendent of schools, “found that girls particularly were in many instances showing a tendency to distortion on one side.”

Evidence was given further on that many accidents occur through cleaning machinery in motion. From a detailed analysis of the accidents occurring from this cause in cotton mills in the North Western Division during the years 1908 and 1909, it is seen that half the accidents occur to young persons, though they probably do not represent more than a fifth of the total employees. A “young person” is a person under 18 years of age and over 14, or over 13 if holding a prescribed certificate of proficiency or attendance at a Public Elementary School (think of the terrible irony of the word “proficiency “). “Children,” presumably, are those workers who have not yet reached the mature age of 13. The legal provisions on the subject which are contained in Section 13 of the Factory Act, 1901, prohibit children from cleaning any part of machinery in motion. We find, however, on reading further (most of the evidence here being given in detail), that so vague and unsatisfactory is the framing of these factory laws that the employers can interpret them in whatever manner best suits their requirements, which, needless to say, is not usually the way that coincides with the health and safety of the unfortunate workers.

Further, as the machines have in nearly every factory to be cleaned by the workpeople in their own time, there is a natural tendency on the part of those doing the cleaning to rush the work, and accidents often occur through this.

This section, “XVII. Cleaning Machinery in Motion,” proves that the illegal employment of children and young persons is winked at by the inspectors ; that adults are compelled to rush the work of cleaning; that the overlookers take care that it is done in as short a time as possible; and that the employers are far too much concerned in turning out work as cheaply as possible (thus increasing their profits) to go to the expense of having cleaning done in such a way, and by such persons, as would militate against the possibility of accidents occurring to those thus employed.

The whole evidence adduced in the Report goes to show that when it is a question between the well-being and safety of the workers and the profits of the masters, it is not the profits of the masters that will be diminished. The Report, it is true, makes certain recommendations to the Home Office with regard to further factory legislation, but these recommendations are not worth the paper they are written on. The fallacy of depending upon the passing of factory acts to benefit the workers should be apparent to even the most prejudiced when it is remembered that, in spite of the numerous acts relating to industrial conditions that have been passed in recent years, every year the number of accidents is increasing enormously. There is but one way by which these accidents can be obviated, can in time be altogether eliminated, and that is by the working class as a whole owning and controlling for its own use and benefit the machinery of production, instead of leaving it, as now, in the hands of a class whose sole concern is to take more and more of the wealth produced by the workers. Then it would be possible for the workers to work under clean, healthy, and safe conditions ; then the necessary work of the world could be made a pleasure instead of a toil and a curse.

It is for this that we of the Socialist Party are working. It is for this that we ask the co-operation and aid of our fellows.


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