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Reviewed by:
  • Making Capitalism Safe: Work Safety and Health Regulation in America, 1880-1940
  • Bob Barnetson
Donald Rogers , Making Capitalism Safe: Work Safety and Health Regulation in America, 1880-1940 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press 2009)

Making Capitalism Safe examines the development of state safety agencies in America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These agencies provide an important intermediary step between the common law of the 19th century and the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OHSA) model of the late 20th century, and careful examination of their political and institutional history complements John Witt's 2004 TheAccidental Republic (with its focus on legal change) and Mark Aldrich's 1997 Safety First (with its emphasis on the business-driven safety first movement).

While the book does address developments in Alabama, California, Illinois, New York, and Ohio, Rogers's primary focus is the creation and operation of Wisconsin's industrial commission. This focus is a strength because it allows the author to conduct a detailed examination of the political, legal, and economic factors that influenced perhaps the fullest manifestation of Progressive approaches to safety regulation. Cataloguing and contrasting developments in other states could provide useful national context, but the comparisons here lack depth. So although the book's title promises a national picture, it does not quite deliver. This limits the book's utility as an introduction of American OHS for undergraduates. At the same time, the frequent state-by-state comparisons distract from the book's primary focus. A separate chapter considering developments in different states might have been a more accessible way to contextualize Wisconsin's development.

This hardback book contains 188 pages of text (broken into four main sections) and an additional 94 pages of appendices, notes, and references. The first section comprises a chapter narrating the common law approach to workplace safety as well as the shortcomings of American factory acts and pressure to shift safety policy from the courts to the legislature. A second chapter describes Wisconsin's 1911 legislation that created an industrial commission and workers' compensation scheme as well as raised the standard of care owed by employers to workers. In this change, we see the beginnings of administrative regulation and Rogers provides a nicely nuanced discussion of how local politics interacted with broader [End Page 261] national trends. He also nicely teases out the corporatist aspects of Wisconsin's commission, which were designed to manage class antagonisms.

The second section comprises three chapters that respectively examine safety campaigns, the development of safety codes, and the enforcement of those codes between 1910 and 1919. A theme introduced in the chapter on safety campaigns is the ways that safety efforts implicitly supported some methods of organizing work (in this case, large-scale industrial work) over others, such as small shops. Explicating the factors driving such choices is a useful contribution. This theme recurs in subsequent chapters discussing the establishment of safety codes and their enforcement.

Also of interest in this section is discussion of political intervention in the work of safety commissions. Students raised in a neoliberal environment commonly view the operation of government bureaucracies as resistant to lawmakers. The direct and indirect political manipulation chronicled by Rogers provides a useful point of departure for discussing more contemporary examples of the political dimension of OHS and workers' compensation. It also nicely summarizes the partial nature of labour participation in the establishment of safety codes.

Chapter 5's discussion of safety enforcement provides useful historical context when considering the impact of contemporary suggestions to privatize workers' compensation. Rogers documents how the unregulated insurance market allowed employers to substitute rate shopping for safety improvements as a way to reduce firm injury costs. Similarly, Rogers's account of Wisconsin's reluctance to embrace (now ubiquitous) experience-rating schemes raises questions about whether workplace safety might be better improved by replacing financial incentives (that can induce gaming behaviour) with another mechanism, such as publicizing firms' inspection and/or injury data.

These topics of safety campaigns, codes, and enforcement are reprised for the 1920s and 1930s in a third section. This section provides an interesting discussion of how legal challenges, the growing use of...