Abstract: We had to be careful: Factory Women's Views of Workplace Hazards, c. 1900-1950

Janet Greenlees


This paper examines female textile workers' attitudes toward health and safety and the associated risks on the shop floor in New England. It uses women's oral testimonies from the different trades to argue that women divided work hazards into three categories: acceptable risks (the social costs of employment), unknown dangers, and the 'real' dangers on the shop floor. While women exercised care at work, they did take dangerous risks. These instances were more frequent when their families urgently needed the money. However, women also switched jobs to avoid certain conditions and hazards and used this as a method of exercising some power in a relatively powerless environment. While risk avoidance and prevention might have contributed to a safer and more relaxed working environment in the long term, in the short term, immediate need was the priority. This immediate need meant that, while many women recognized the dangers they faced, they felt unable to challenge them and instead switched jobs when possible. The limited acceptance of risk and the regular switching of jobs became protection from the realities of the conditions and the daily risks the women faced.