ASSE Reflects on Past Child Labor Practices

March 15, 2011
As the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) celebrates its 100th anniversary, the organization reflects on the evolution of safety in the United States over the last century, including child and teen labor practices.

In 1911, more than 2 million American children under the age of 16 were working – many of them 12 hours or more, 6 days a week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). These children often worked in unhealthy and hazardous conditions for minuscule wages.

In the early 1900s, girls and boys alike were at risk for occupational injuries or death. Young girls who worked in mills faced the danger of slipping and losing a finger or a foot while standing on top of machines to change bobbins. They also risked being scalped if their hair got caught in machinery, according to DOL.

In coal mines, young “breaker boys” could be smothered or crushed by huge piles of coal. DOL noted that boys as young as 12 could be sent down into the mines, where they faced the threat of cave-ins and explosions.

A Safer Future

Fortunately, a lot has changed over the last century. Laws have been created to protect workers; smart businesses have developed and implemented effective work safety programs; and the safety profession has grown immensely.

According to DOL, when Congress created the federal DOL in 1913, one of its primary goals was the administration of legal child labor and the elimination of illegal practices. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 established a minimum wage and limited the age of child laborers to 16 and over, 18 for hazardous occupations. Children 14 and 15 years old were permitted to work in certain occupations after school.

Visit ASSE’s Teen Safety Web site for more information on labor laws and teen worker safety.

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