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Parent Category: 18th Century History Articles
Category: Industrial Revolution
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Workplace safety is a common concern in the modern era. Slip and fall accidents, back pain from sitting at a desk for too long, carpal tunnel from using a mouse and keyboard — there are a variety of safety concerns that employees and employers alike think of when considering the design of modern workplaces.

However, that wasn’t always the case. In fact, throughout history, there have been numerous scenarios where safety was severely undervalued in the workplace. At times this has reached epically horrifying proportions, such as the pharaohs likely recruiting large portions of their populations to work on the pyramids or, even worse, the Emperor Qin Shi Huang burying those who died while working on the Great Wall of China within the wall itself as they went along.

 

While conditions weren’t quite so awful in the 1700s, there’s no doubt that they were a significant step below modern standards. Let’s break down some of the major ways that 18th-century workplaces differed from what we experience in the modern day, especially in regards to safety and liability concerns:

Workplace Safety in the 1700s

In the 18th century, there was much more of a “Wild West” feel to the workplace than we are accustomed to in the highly regulated, worker-centric modern world. Rather than taking proper precautions and going out of their way for their workers, employers would do whatever they liked. This was largely made possible due to the fact that there were few workplace laws to stop them.

 

For example, modern norms, like the restriction of child labor, were nonexistent. On farms, newborn children were viewed as potential laborers as much as additions to a growing family. In fact, they were expected to start lifting their own weight at as early as 5 years old.

 

If a farmer had a large enough family to not require the work of all of his children, he would often lease them out to other farms as laborers in order to help ease the cost of raising them. While this may seem cold, calculating, and even heartless, it was often done out of necessity. The expenses associated with raising a child from birth to adulthood were simply too steep at the time to not expect them to at least shoulder some work to help offset the cost.

 

In industry, the growing use of machinery also created the excuse to employ children in simplified, machine-driven jobs. This was often done in the name of helping them avoid idleness. However, the clear (if unspoken) benefit of cheap child labor was doubtlessly a tremendous boon to any ambitious factory owner as well.

 

In addition, for everyone on the workforce, working hours were often excessively long, stretching upwards of 12 to 16 hours per day, six days a week, year round. While farm labor allowed for outdoor work, industrial developments heralded a shift towards factory work as the century progressed, especially in places like Europe. This naturally led to the iconically dark, dingy factories that have become legendary thanks to the writers of the time such as Charles Dickens, who replicated it in more than one of his novels.

 

The subpar, often inhumane conditions of these factories were infamous for the lack of care shown for the comfort or safety of the workers involved. For example, if a worker was seriously injured on the job, they were out of luck. Typically, commoners did not have access to the legal system. This left them unable to sue for compensation and without legal recourse in general. On top of that, if the injury was serious, they often found themselves suddenly out of a job and without pay as well.

 

Finally, there was the maltreatment and disrespect of the workers by the bosses themselves. This could manifest in a number of different ways, all of which sent their employees an “I don’t need you as much as you need me” message.

 

For example, many bosses paid their workers minimal wages (and on top of that, women and children were also paid significantly lower than the men by their sides) or even detestably compensated workers with vouchers only redeemable at company stores. The last option kept a company’s workforce trapped within its own system. It created a form of unofficial servitude and dependence that didn’t allow exhausted workers to properly rest or heal from the horrible work conditions they faced on a daily basis. Needless to say, there’s a reason Charles Dickens called workplaces from this era “dark satanic mills.”

A 21st-Century Comparison

Clearly, in comparison, modern-day companies have improved by leaps and bounds in not just workplace safety but the overall respect of employers towards employees. Modern employees have recourse when a business doesn’t attend to safety concerns. Employers also provide compensation for things like missed time for work-related illnesses, accidents, injuries, medical expenses, and even funeral costs following fatal accidents.

 

In addition, modern workplaces are often safer, although dangers and complications can still show up in nefariously subtle forms, with the most common injuries being slips, trips, and falls due to poor workplace ergonomics. This has grown in importance as desk jobs have become more and more common.

 

Nevertheless, the inherent care and concern that an employee can expect from the average employer in the 21st century (whether it comes from genuine interest, fear of legal repercussions, or a combination of the two) are head and shoulders above the horrifying conditions that so many workers faced throughout the 18th century.

 

Child labor was common. Wages were also pitifully low, insultingly reduced for women and children, and often cunningly woven into intra-company compensation systems that trapped employees and left them with no options. In addition, dirty, light-deprived workplaces were commonplace, especially in factories, which naturally threatened the health of all people who worked within them. When 18th- and 21st-century workplace environments are held up in comparison, there can be no doubt that the world has seen significant improvement in workplace safety as the last few hundred years have gone by.

About the Author:

Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. 
Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.