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  Remembering Alice Hamilton
  by Fatima Pashaei
 
OSHA looks back in time to honor a pioneer in worker safety and health.
Photo:  Alice Hamilton buildingIt was 1916, and two men stood waiting for a train at a New Jersey railway station. One man's cheekbones were stained with streaks of orange and his hair and eyebrows were bright yellow. His partner had a similar look, with bright yellow spots staining his face and bright orange hair, eyebrows, and fingernails. "Look at the canaries," someone whispered from the crowd of travelers gathered around the two comic figures.

In reality, the situation of the two "canaries" was far from humorous. These men had been involved in producing picric acid in the Canary Islands. In a large open shed, they poured carbolic acid into nitric acid to form picric acid, an explosive the military used during World War I. Orange smoke would rise from the mixture, coloring men various shades of orange and yellow, then sinking and spreading over the ground. As the smoke spread, men scurried out of their sheds, choking and gasping for air. Once they inhaled the noxious fumes into their lungs, breathing became extremely difficult. In some severe cases, men choked and died. This was just one example of the nightmarish world of workers during the industrial era in the United States. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, rapid industrialization transformed large U.S. cities, especially those with scores of unemployed people willing to work long hours for low wages. The industrial workforce comprised large populations of eager and undemanding immigrants who easily met the industrial establishments' demand for manpower. As a result, industry and cheap labor formed an unhealthy alliance. As industries expanded, incidents of sick and injured industrial workers skyrocketed. A startling number of work-related ailments-rheumatism, pneumonia, carbon monoxide poisoning, and lead poisoning, among them-crept into the lives of the working class. These were just a few of the silent killers that lurked in the shadows of industrial workplaces. Industrial workplaces became hazardous breeding grounds for disease, and the poor working class had no choice but to accept the inherent dangers on the job. Mechanical accidents, exposures to hazardous chemicals and toxic fumes, and irresponsible industrial practices were daily occurrences. Photo: Alice Hamilton title=One implicit law seemed to govern the lives of working men and women in the industrial era: the law of Social Darwinism, better known as "survival of the fittest." Employers considered their workers to be expendable and had carte blanche to fire sick or injured workers, send them home with no wage compensation, and replace them with stronger, healthier workers. Neither employers nor the federal or state governments were prepared to take responsibility for or find a solution to the spiraling epidemic of workplace diseases and injuries. It was not until the early 1900s that Dr. Alice Hamilton formed a movement to regulate industrial working conditions in the United States. Hamilton, a renowned scientist and social activist, is considered the founder of occupational medicine.

After graduation from medical school at the University of Michigan in 1893, Hamilton conducted research in bacteriology and pathology at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She became a professor of pathology at Northwestern University Women's Medical School in Chicago in 1897. That was the year she moved into Jane Addams' famous Chicago settlement house, known as Hull House, and found her life's calling. There, Hamilton spent more than 20 years serving the working poor and witnessing what she called "the unprotected, helpless state of working men who were held responsible for their own safety."

In her 1943 autobiography, Exploring the Dangerous Trades, Hamilton writes of her experience at Hull House: "Living in a working-class quarter, coming in contact with laborers and their wives, I could not fail to hear tales of the dangers that working men faced, of cases of carbonmonoxide gassing in the great steel mills, of painters disabled by lead palsy, of pneumonia and rheumatism among the men in the stockyards."

Hull House functioned primarily as a refuge for the poor. For progressive thinkers such as Hamilton, however, it served as a mecca for social activism and a forum for social change, especially in worker safety and health issues.

In 1910, the Illinois governor offered Hamilton the opportunity to take the lead in recognizing, investigating, and addressing safety and health concerns in the workplace for the state's newly established Occupational Disease Commission. Hamilton, the commission's managing director, launched a yearlong, statewide survey of industrial poisons.

Photo: 1910 industry workersTo conduct the survey, Hamilton assumed the role of a detective. She searched for answers to questions that had long gone unanswered about industrial poisons, in particular, lead poisoning. She combed poor workingclass neighborhoods, visited sick workers in their homes, read hospital records, and spoke with doctors, priests, and apothecaries. She met with labor organizers, inspected factories, and suggested safer health and safety practices to managers. In all, Hamilton visited more than 300 industrial establishments and discovered more than 70 industrial practices that exposed workers to lead poisoning.

With the publication of Hamilton's Survey of Occupational Diseases in 1911 came the passage of an Illinois law that provided compensation for workers suffering with industrial diseases caused by poisonous fumes, gases, or dusts. The law resulted in sweeping reforms in the Illinois industries. At the insistence of insurance companies, industrial factories swiftly implemented preventive measures in the workplace because compensation laws covered industrial diseases. Several other states, industrial and nonindustrial, passed similar workers' compensation laws.

Hamilton's investigative work for the commission received nationwide attention and praise. Thus, it came as no surprise to Hamilton when, in 1911, Charles O'Neill, Commissioner of Labor in the U.S. Department of Commerce, asked her to take her research to a national level. (The Labor Department did not exist until 1912). O'Neill offered Hamilton no salary.

Working without pay, she traveled the country for the next 10 years investigating hazards posed by exposure to arsenic, lead dust (among smelters and bathtub enamelers), white lead (among painters), mercury (among hat manufacturers), organic solvents, nitric acid (among workers involved in explosives production), and radium (among watch dial manufacturers). She also investigated the effects of air hammers on stonecutters and of jackhammers on miners.

As a federal agent, Hamilton had no authority to enter any establishment without permission. Traveling from state to state, she relied solely on employers' cooperation to conduct her industrial hazards studies. In a sense, Hamilton became the first volunteer OSHA inspector.

Photo: 1912 workersHamilton's work helped bring about reforms in what she called "the dangerous trades." The factories and companies she visited underwent dramatic transformations under her advice and direction. Among them was the Pullman Company which, when Hamilton visited it in 1912, employed 489 painters-109 of them with plumbism, or lead poisoning. She went to Mrs. Joseph T. Bowen, the head of the company and a major stockholder, to report her findings. Her complaint about the company's excessive use of lead paints met with immediate results. In the large factory, the company equipped its medical departments with modern facilities that provided employees immediate medical care. By the end of 1913, the lead industry had practically eliminated the use of lead paint. Consequently, the Pullman Company experienced a dramatic decrease in incidents of plumbism that year-only 3 cases among 639 workers.

Hamilton's profound concern for the well-being and safety of workers often met with opposition. She said many viewed her work in industrial medicine as "tainted with socialism or with feminine sentimentality for the poor." Yet, despite overwhelming criticism, in 1919 Hamilton became an assistant professor of industrial medicine and the first woman faculty member at the prestigious all-male Harvard Medical School.

In 1935, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins asked Hamilton to become a consultant for the U.S. Department of Labor. Hamilton worked tirelessly with the department to help implement worker compensation laws and enforce safer working conditions. At age 66, she continued to conduct surveys, attend conferences, testify at hearings before Congress, and bring the department's attention to pressing worker safety and health issues.

During the late 1930s, Hamilton embarked on a dangerous investigation of carbon disulfide poisoning among workers in the new viscose rayon, or artificial silk, industry. The poison attacked the workers' central nervous systems and caused mental disease, vision loss, and paralysis in many. The results of Hamilton's rayon survey helped lead to the passage of Pennsylvania's first workers' compensation law.

Hamilton's work in the field of occupational medicine and her relentless pursuit of worker rights and safe and healthful workplaces has inevitably saved thousands of lives. Unfortunately, she did not live to see her efforts come to fruition. Hamilton died in her home at age 101, just 3 months before then-President Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 into law.

Hamilton's legacy lives on through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Her notion that workers are entitled to safe and healthful working conditions sparked numerous reforms in the workplace. It was an idea, rather radical for her time, that Hamilton stood by and advocated throughout her life. Today, it serves as the philosophy behind U.S. occupational safety and health laws.

Hamilton's profound concern for the well-being and safety of workers often met with opposition. She said many viewed her work in industrial medicine as "tainted with socialism or with feminine sentimentality for the poor." Yet, despite overwhelming criticism, in 1919 Hamilton became an assistant professor of industrial medicine and the first woman faculty member at the prestigious all-male Harvard Medical School.


Pashaei, a communications major at George Washington University, served as a summer intern in OSHA's Office of Public Affairs.