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  • Caught in the Machinery: Workplace Accidents and Injured Workers in Nineteenth-Century Britain
  • Brian Lewis
Bronstein, Jamie L. —Caught in the Machinery: Workplace Accidents and Injured Workers in Nineteenth-Century Britain. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008. Pp. 222.

The "factory cripple," the "fossey-jawed" matchmaker, the collier with "black lung," the mutilated miner, mill hand, or navvy, and the worker condemned to a slow, painful death from an occupational disease were the familiar casualties of industrializing Britain: the men, women, and children who frequent the pages of nineteenth-century newspapers, parliamentary blue books, inspectors' reports, short-time advocates' polemics, and "condition of England" tracts. How did they and their families cope? How did employers, coworkers, and the public react? How were death and suffering in the workplace represented in printed accounts? How did ideas about employer liability develop? Few labour historians have systematically tackled such questions; Jamie Bronstein, in an important, focused contribution to a developing field, deftly intertwines legal, social, and cultural history in providing some persuasive answers.

She begins with the scale of the carnage. On the railways, to cite one example, an undated report on the casualty rate over a six-year period for a single stretch of track counted 32 deaths, 23 compound fractures, 74 simple fractures, 140 "severe" cases of blast burns, bruising, cuts, and dislocations, and 400 "minor" instances of lacerations, amputated fingers, and the like. Down the coal mines, to cite a second example, 2,143 miners were killed between 1850 and 1852 —in explosions (from flying debris and "choke damp"), roof falls, and shaft accidents, as well as from other causes —and, during the century as a whole, nonfatal injuries outpaced deaths by a factor of 100. In the textile mills, for a third example, in one six-month period in 1849, factory inspectors in England and Scotland reported 2,021 accidents resulting in 22 deaths and 109 amputations; factory workers were particularly susceptible to injury from unguarded machinery (spiked [End Page 229] rollers, spinning shafts, moving belts, and flying shuttles) and occupational illnesses (including respiratory diseases, varicose veins, deafness, and misshapen knees). In the traditional trades beyond the railways, mines, and mills —construction, shipping, farming, brewing, and all those other jobs that employed the bulk of the British workforce until the twentieth century —evidence for accidents and illnesses is sparser and more anecdotal but suggests a similar harrowing pattern of trauma and suffering.

What recourse did the maimed or the families of the bereaved have? Bronstein walks us through the options, such as they were. Before the first introduction of an employers' liability law in 1880, a worker seeking compensation could sue an employer in the civil courts. This was rather pointless (except maybe to shame the employer and elicit community sympathy), since from the 1840s developing common-law constructions made it (or confirmed that it was) almost impossible for the worker to win. These amounted to the transparently pro-property notion that the master could not be held accountable for workplace injuries —even when machinery was unguarded and working conditions unsafe —since the worker, as a free agent and in exchange for material gain, had implicitly accepted the risks in taking on the job and had the notional recourse of walking away from it if working conditions proved dangerous. Successive judges also ruled that for an employer to be held responsible for medical expenses in the event of one worker injuring another would constitute a miscarriage of justice (the so-called "fellow-servant rule") and that such employer liability would also induce worker carelessness and negligence. In short, employers blamed employees for workplace accidents, and the courts nearly always backed them.

As the legal options were limited, what then for the families who had lost a breadwinner or for incapacitated workers? One possibility was employer charity (workplace paternalism coexisted quite comfortably with the failure to admit liability), but this was unsystematic and capricious. A second was succour from a compassionate public, notably in the form of national subscriptions in the wake of well-publicized disasters —again, highly uneven in operation and enabling a good deal of oft-resented social control by higher-class fund administrators. Beyond these...


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