Working Conditions During the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution was a time of extensive innovation and technological advancement that permanently altered industrialization.

While the resulting industrial booms created massive economic profit and fundamentally changed human life, factory workers of the time suffered harsh conditions.

This article explains the causes and effects of the Industrial Revolution and the poor working conditions factory workers faced.

Causes and Effects of the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution was the transition of handmade production to mechanical production, with factories and chemical processing overtaking traditional productions methods. This transition began in Europe in the mid-1700s with the rise of steam and water power, which allowed for mechanized factory systems and the mass production of goods.

Towards the late 1700s, the United States started adopting the manufacturing technologies and methods of Great Britain, prompting the rise of industrialization in the US. Industrialization was made possible by the advancements and introduction of:

  • Steam and water power
  • Coal power
  • Machine tools
  • Mechanized production

These advancements created rapid growth and production across the United States, with industries and economies booming from mass production and a significant rise of jobs from factory positions. The prominent industries included:

  • Textiles
  • Steel
  • Chemicals
  • Iron smelting
  • Glassmaking

These industries boomed across the United States, which made products cheaper and more accessible. This enabled people to purchase goods beyond their basic necessities, which further boosted economies and led to the rise of the economic middle class.

Additionally, technological advancements in production and machinery spilled into agricultural production, resulting in farming booms that exponentially increased food production. This increase in food availability significantly reduced hunger throughout the United States, and led directly to increased life expectancy and improved human health. Increased transportation through locomotives and steamboats further improved the availability of manufactured products and food by improving distribution and shipping practices.

While the Industrial Revolution resulted in historic advancements in technology, agriculture, and economic rise, it also led to severe pollution and substantial effects on human health. Pollution from factories went unchecked due to the novelty of industrialization and the unknown effects of pollution, leading to heavy air and water pollution in industrialized areas.

Read more: How Industrial Pollution Affects Human Health

In addition to pollution affecting human health, factories lacked substantive safety precautions, leading to poor working conditions that drastically affected factory workers.

Working Conditions in Factories

The Industrial Revolution introduced a major boom in jobs across the United States, primarily in factory positions. Millions of people in cities took jobs in factories, where they were exposed to dangerous conditions. Industrial booms also resulted in a significant decrease in jobs outside of urban areas, leaving workers with few other options besides unsafe factory jobs. Due to a lack of regulation and workers’ rights, employers were able to exploit their workers to improve profits.  Workers suffered poor conditions primarily through: 

  • Long hours
  • Low wages
  • Child labor
  • Physical discipline
  • Dangerous conditions

These conditions posed major threats to the wellbeing of factory workers, and resulted in extremely poor living conditions.

Long Hours

Throughout the Industrial Revolution, workers’ shifts averaged 12-16 hours, with few breaks or days off, if any. During this time period, many industries required employees to work seven days a week, often only allowing certain holidays as time off. Workers had short meal breaks, during which they were often required to clean their machines and perform any operational maintenance that was not to be done on paid time.

The long shifts that workers had to endure often resulted in bodily damage, including back injuries and repetitive stress injuries that developed over time. Many workers were young children, which led to disabilities from overworked stress that carried into adulthood.

In addition, due to the exhaustion that developed over long hours, workers were more likely to make errors that resulted in dangerous accidents. Employees were expected to work through these injuries and were offered little to no compensation for health and injuries.

Low Wages

During the Industrial Revolution, competition for jobs was extremely high due to exponentially increasing urbanization, with few jobs available outside of factories. Because of this and the lack of minimum wage laws, employers offered meager salaries to their employees. Men made an average of $8 per week, while women made approximately $4 per week, and children $2 per week, despite all working similar hours and jobs.

These low wages were often not enough to cover the costs of living at the time, and in many cases led to each family member taking jobs in factories seven days a week. Many workers lived in barracks in the factories, sharing beds with those who worked shifts opposite them.

While the Industrial Revolution led to the rise of the middle class and enabled many to buy luxuries outside of their basic necessities, it also further intensified the economic gap between middle- and lower-class people. Factory workers struggled to make ends meet with low salaries and long wages, and spent their money solely on necessities. Meanwhile, employers, managers, and supervisors earned higher wages and worked shorter hours, which allowed them both time and money to spend on luxuries.

Child Labor

The United States at this time lacked substantial laws and regulations regarding working conditions. Due to this, factories were able to employ children with limited restrictions. Children were subject to the same working conditions as adults, and were often put in more dangerous situations due to their ability to fit into machinery spaces that adults couldn’t. During this time, machinery lacked automation and required hand-operated repairs. However, much of the machinery was tight-spaced and built with small crawl spaces. Because of this, children were often forced to make repairs where adults couldn’t fit. This, along with the inability to fully shut off machinery for repairs, led to many children facing injuries–oftentimes fatal.

Many factories took in children from orphanages under the guise of apprenticeships, in which children lived in factories and were provided minimal meals for no monetary compensation. Similarly, families who were unable to care for their children often exchanged them for small sums of money for employers to take them to live and work in factories.

The harsh conditions and long hours led to many children developing physical deformities as they grew up working 12-16 hour shifts in dangerous conditions with little exercise and nutrition. These disabilities could impede their ability to perform jobs later in life, leading to lifelong unemployment and subsequent poverty.

Children who ran away from these conditions could be subject to prison time, and employers often imposed cruel punishments on children they suspected of intending to run away.

Physical Discipline

In addition to cutting wages and hours, employers often used physical means to discipline their workers. Long hours caused extreme exhaustion, and workers frequently fell asleep on the job. While this was a significant hazard for those working with heavy machinery, it also subjected them to physical discipline from employers and managers. Such discipline included:

  • Beating employees with leather straps
  • Hanging iron weights to workers’ necks
  • Dowsing workers in water to keep them awake

These punishments were invariably worse when directed at children, as children were more susceptible to beatings, injuries, and sleep deprivation. During the Industrial Revolution, many children were beaten to death in factories by supervisors and employers as punishment and examples set for other children.

Dangerous Conditions

Due to the rise of urbanization during this time, factories were substantially overcrowded. This led to frequent outbreaks of diseases like cholera, diphtheria, and typhoid. In addition, workers were expected to operate heavy machinery for long hours with minimal rest breaks, leading to extreme injuries and even death. Limb loss and physical deformation were common effects of unsafe working conditions, and for many, it resulted in an inability to work. Without substantial worker protections or social security measures, physical injuries could result in permanent job loss and lifelong poverty.

In addition, many industries, including chemical and steel production, emitted high amounts of smoke and toxic fumes. Not only did this result in heavy air pollution that affected nearby communities, but factories at this time often lacked proper ventilation, and even windows in factories could be rare. This led to severe health hazards for workers, including:

  • Lung and respiratory conditions
  • Heart conditions
  • Stroke

Read more: How Industrial Pollution Affects Human Health

Factories had few safety measures installed for the protection of their workers. Tight, crowded factory conditions were poorly ventilated, allowing disease to spread rapidly and dangerous fumes to congest the lungs of workers. Many workers faced lung and respiratory diseases that went untreated. Additionally, emissions from machinery were not treated or filtered, resulting in toxic emissions that afflicted workers and surrounding communities with severe respiratory, skin, and blood diseases.

The lack of ventilation also created severe fire hazards, leading to frequent factory fires that killed and injured hundreds of workers.

The poor factory conditions during the Industrial Revolution led to a significant need for workers’ rights and safety regulations. The introduction of labor unions in the 1800s began the process of creating policies that improved factory conditions.

Read more: Working Conditions in the 1800s

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