At the turn of the century with the United States reeling from the Industrial Revolution that it had just gone through, capitalism was running at full bore. Industries were flourishing, however, the worker had been left behind. The turn of the century saw a great deal of tragedies in the workplace stemming from poor working conditions. These poor working conditions can especially be seen in the steel industry. It would be the reformers of the Progressive Era (1900-1917) that would seek to amend these issues and fight for the rights of workers to have a safe workplace. The culmination of injuries, complaints, pressure from unions and other labor reformers, would lead to the creation of a centralized safety committee in 1908, that would be responsible for managing safe working conditions for US steelworkers.


In seeking to analyze the impact of social reformers on the working conditions of US Steelworkers, it is important to look at accounts of the working conditions from the workers themselves. For that reason, a mixture of primary and secondary sources will be utilized in order to conduct a quantitative analysis of the impact of safety reforms on the industry itself. Accounts of life in steel facilities will be included from both prior to and after the creation of the safety committee in order to document the changes in the industry based on the actions of reformers.

US Steelworkers Before 1908

While already a grueling industry, steelworkers were subject to long hours. In 1890, the average manufacturing worker was working 59 hours, while the average US steelworker was working 67. As the working hours for general manufacturing positions continued to decline from the period of 1890 on, the working ours for US steelworkers would remain consistent until around the period of 1908-1910.[1] While the hours alone were hard enough for the workers, the manner of work coupled with exhaustion would lead to horrible injuries within the US steel mills.

According to the US Department of Labor, between the years of 1902 and 1907, factory conditions and incidents within steel factories would be documented by a journal known as The Factory Inspector.[2] Between these years, the journal would document horrible incidents that sought to identify reasons for changes within the industry.

The Factory Inspector reported that one steel mill saw molten ash fall onto wet sand. This caused an explosion large enough to generate an earthquake in the nearby town. The incident led to thirty men having molten metal poured on them as they tried to escape the scene. The metal would literally cook most of the men.[3] Another account detailed how a slippage of molten ore buried one man alive as he was asked to clean out a working blast furnace by his manager.[4] Incidents like these chronicled the risk associated dangerous nature of the trade itself.

Simply working with steel was not the only danger. Another problem within the factories was the amount of exposed machinery. Accounts of these incidents are spectacular as the provide an inside look into the dangers of industrial life as a whole. The Factory Inspector details how multiple men were caught up by machinery belts and thrown from high distances. Likewise, other men were reported to be cut in half by blades used to cut steel.[5] A particularly gruesome account states

“In plain sight of a hundred fellow‑workmen, Martin Stoffel was cut into small pieces at the Philadelphia Caramel Works … He was dragged into the machinery and his head severed… A second later both legs were cut off. Then one arm after the other fell into the lesser wheels below, both being cut into many parts. Before the machinery could be stopped, Stoffel had been literally chopped to pieces.”[6]

It would be incidents like the one of Martin Stoffel that would lead to a call for reforms surrounding the steel working industry in order to protect the workers.

The Russell Sage Study

In 1907, the Russell Sage Foundation conducted and released a study regarding the life of US Steel workers in Pittsburgh. The study identifies how within the first decade of the 10th century, over 50% of the US steel production had come under control of the US Steel company. With this, came a uniform set of rules and expectations. Upon the increase in the role of US Steel within the sector, the study also found that the eight hour work day that had one existed in the steel manufacturing industry had disappeared. US Steel had continued to increase the hours of their workers. Most worked seven days per week and most did not receive a full day of rest during an average week.[7]

This study would become highly publicized and in combination with unionization efforts within the steel industry, there needed to be action from the US Steel company.

US Steel Following 1908

Following the report released by the Russell Sage Foundation, US Steel had a public relations problem. The problems faced inside of their steel factories were now public and had been read by many. This public relations concern would lead to the 1908 creation of a company‑wide Central Committee of Safety. The US Steel corporation would invest roughly $750,000 per year in addressing safety concerns in their factory following the creation of the committee.[8]

In seeking to analyze the impact of the 1908 committee, one can look to the US Department of Labor and their Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1918, the Bureau released a report regarding the impact of the safety movement within the steel industry. The report analyzed the impact of safety regulations between the years of 1907 and 1917. In 1907, 24.2 percent of steelworkers had either been injured or killed. In 1910, two years following the implementation of the safety committee within US Steel, that number had dropped to 17.7 percent. Following the 10 years included in the study, the number had fallen to 7.7 percent.[9] The impact of safety reforms within the steel industry had been felt according to the data.


It would take a third party report to expose the ill conditions of the steel working profession, but once the conditions were exposed they were addressed. The lack of concerns for safety in the steel working industry was written off as a concern for maximizing profit margins. However, one must ask the question of what cost more, to retain an employee of to continuously hire new employees due to accidents suffered at work. With this, the question can be asked if the steel industry was not providing safe working conditions, simply because nobody had pointed out the unsafe conditions that had existed for decades prior to the Russell Sage report.


[1] Shiells, Martha Ellen. “Collective Choice of Working Conditions: Hours in British and U.S. Iron and Steel, 1890-1923.” The Journal of Economic History 50, no. 2 (1990): 381.
[2] US Department of Labor, Progressive Era Investigations (Washington, DC), para. 2.
[3] Ibid., para. 3.
[4] Ibid., para. 3.
[5] Ibid., para. 4.
[6] Ibid., para. 5.
[7] John A. Fitch, The Steel Workers the Pittsburgh Survey Findings in Six Volumes (New York, NY: Charities Publication Committee, 1910), 4.
[8] US Department of Labor, Progressive Era Investigations, para. 21.
[9] US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, The Safety Movement in the Iron and Steel Industry 1907 to 1917 (Washington, DC, 1918), 16.