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"Children Hurt at Work"
American Decades Primary Sources. Ed. Cynthia Rose. Vol. 4: 1930-1939. Detroit, MI: Gale, 2004. p544-546.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale, COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale
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Page 544

"Children Hurt at Work"

Journal article

By: Gertrude Folks Zimand

Date: July 1932

Source: Zimand, Gertrude Folks. "Children Hurt at Work." The Survey, July 1932.

About the Author: Gertrude Folks Zimand (1894–1966) was the director of research and publicity for the National Child Labor Committee, a private organization founded in 1904 and dedicated to controlling child labor, establishing fair laws, and protecting working children. The committee continued to operate in the early years of the twenty-first century.


The work of children is integral to the history of the United States. They worked on family farms and for family businesses. With the industrial revolution, however, they also began to labor in mills, mines, and factories. The 1900 U.S. census showed that almost two million children between the ages of ten and fifteen were employed. The National Child Labor Committee's work reduced the number of child workers during the 1920s. With the onset of the Great Depression, however, child labor increased. Employers could get away with paying children less than they would pay adult workers. Families needed money from whatever source, and if the only way they could survive was by sending a child out to work in a textile mill, factory, or coal mine, they would do so.

The employment of children affected their futures and their health. A child working in a factory could not attend school regularly, if at all. His or her early life as an industrial worker spelled out a grim future. Without education, most working children were doomed to spend their adult lives continuing with the same sort of work that broke both backs and spirits. They were at risk for diseases related to their occupations. With minimal legal protection and indifferent employers, children were severely injured and killed on the job.

The laboring children suffered subtler health effects as well. They inhaled dust that caused lung disease and were at times infected with tuberculosis. They spent so many hours closed in that they rarely saw the sun and so suffered vitamin D deficiencies. The close quarters in which they worked made infectious disease spread rapidly. And still, many did not earn enough to eat a nutritious diet, which debilitated them further.


The National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) was an important force for change in the area of child employment, and thus health, but effecting change was a long struggle. "Children Hurt at Work" exemplifies the committee's work. Children's advocates tried several avenues before they succeeded in convincing Congress to enact protective legislation. Before that, other measures of varying usefulness were put into effect. One was the Code of Fair Competition for the Cotton-Textile Industry, which President Franklin Roosevelt (served 1933–1945) signed in July 1933. That code barred children under the age of sixteen from working in textile mills. It was the first step taken by the federal government to prevent the exploitation of children as workers.

Even with that law in effect, however, it was clear that further controls were needed. In Pennsylvania, for example, some twenty-two thousand employment certificates were issued to children aged fourteen and fifteen in 1932. Some sought summer or after-school employment, but at least nineteen thousand were issued to children who were leaving school for full-time employment.

State laws on the ages for compulsory schooling of children did something to control illegal employment of children and thus reduce the general effects of working, as well as of injuries and deaths. In situations of economic need and corporate greed, however, families and employers both ignored these laws. New York State, for example, passed legislation in the late nineteenth century that required children between the ages of eight and fourteen to attend school. In 1911, a fire at the Triangle Shirt-waist Factory in New York City took the lives of many girls and young women between those ages who were working there.

The NCLC was also a force behind a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution, described in this article, that would have set limits on child labor. Although at least fifteen states ratified the proposed amendment, it never secured the support of the two-thirds of all states needed to allow it to be transformed into law.

The committee and other children's advocates, however, did succeed during President Franklin Roosevelt's second term of office. In 1938, the Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which controlled employment for children under the age of sixteen. Young workers over sixteen were then given the same protections if injured as were all workers.

The long-term effect of the NCLC, probably the most visible and active child-labor advocacy group, was that Page 545  |  Top of Article states began controlling child labor by the permit system. The legal age at which a child can legally began working varies, and the number of allowable hours rises with age.

Primary Source: "Children Hurt at Work"

SYNOPSIS: In this article Gertrude Folks Zimand, an NCLC official, describes the number of children injured and killed on the job and the scarcity of resources to help them.

One of the many tragic aspects of the industrial exploitation of children is the army of boys and girls who, at the outset of their industrial careers, fall victims to the machine. Each year, in the sixteen states which take the trouble to find out what is happening to their young workers, no less than a thousand children under eighteen years are permanently disabled and another hundred are killed.

It was Florence Kelley, the pioneer in this field, who first maintained that the term "industrial accidents" as applied to children was a misnomer and insisted that we speak of industrial injuries. For an accident, she pointed out, implies something which just happens, which cannot be prevented, whereas such wholesale maiming of children by industry constitutes criminal negligence. But unfortunately permitting half-grown youngsters to assume the risk of accident is but the first step in a general laissez-faire policy.

Charles E. Gibbons, assisted by Chester T. Stansbury, has been making for the National Child Labor Committee a follow-up study of children who were seriously injured in industry four or five years ago. So far 108 children have been studied in two states, Illinois and Tennessee. These children, now nearly adult, had been maimed physically, often to the extent of a lifelong handicap, and had undergone the experience of seeing their whole future jeopardized just as they were emerging from childhood to adulthood—a period at best of emotional stress and strain. Yet in this crisis, the protecting arm of the state had not been extended, and the children had been left to make their adjustments as best they might.

The children for a variety of reasons did not receive the full amount to which they were entitled.

The Illinois law permits, but does not require, that in cases of permanent injury a child's future earning capacity be taken into account in determining the wage basis for the compensation award. In practice however this is rarely done. In Tennessee the law does not permit such consideration. At the time of this study the Tennessee law limited payment for medical care to $100; later another $100 was provided. Some children not only had to use their entire compensation award for medical expenses, but to draw on other funds or go in debt. In both states the age of the child affects the amount of compensation received. Illinois allows extra compensation to children under sixteen injured while illegally employed; in Tennessee such children are excluded from the Compensation Act and must sue at common law, and a guardian is required for minors under eighteen. Yet the ages of half the children in Tennessee were reported higher on the accident records than they actually were and in Illinois in 27 per cent of the cases age had not been verified.

In spite of the fact that one of the chief reasons for workmen's compensation is to prevent the uncertainty, delay and cost incidental to litigation, nevertheless two out of every five children in Illinois had felt the need of hiring attorneys. The fees for such services varied from less than 20 per cent to 47 per cent of the compensation award.

In most cases the compensation money was neither used for the child's education or immediate benefit nor invested for his future.

Some children received a comparatively small amount of compensation, but in most cases it was several hundred dollars and in a considerable number well over a thousand dollars. Of the $62,000 received by the 108 injured children, only 2.5 per cent was used for education—the paramount need of a child with an industrial handicap; and only 22 per cent was placed in banks or invested. Most of it was frittered away on non-essentials, often foolishly, and in some cases the existence of this temporary source of income blinded the child and his parents to the need for vocational education. Yet if these children are not trained for self-support, they are likely to become dependent upon relatives or recipients of charity, with the possibility of ending up as beggars on the street, using their handicap as the chief stock in trade.

These children had not received vocational reeducation and few knew of the state rehabilitation service.

The study demonstrates that the accidents children suffer seriously handicap them for industry. Of the 108 children, only 44 had returned to their former jobs, and 35 stated that they felt unable to continue in the kind of work in which they were previously engaged either because of physical incapacity or fear Page 546  |  Top of Article resulting from the accident. An even larger number experienced difficulty in securing work directly attributable to their injury.

Nevertheless in spite of the fact that in both Illinois and Tennessee there is a state rehabilitation service, only 7 of the 108 children had even heard of this service and only one thoroughgoing case of rehabilitation which benefited the child was found. This boy had learned of the service through a newspaper.

The study on the whole presents a disheartening picture; children injured, often needlessly, permanently handicapped for work at the outset of their industrial careers; ignorant of their rights under the compensation law; sometimes at the mercy of unscrupulous employers; left without advice or counsel in planning for the future; groping in the dark for something that will enable them to regain their power of self-support, but drifting oftentimes into discouragement and despondency if not into definitely anti-social behavior. "I've about decided I cannot make an honest living and will go to bootlegging," said one youth who had been turned down repeatedly because "we can't afford to take a boy with three fingers off."

But the machinery is already in existence which, if properly administered, can transform the picture. More care in checking up on age and legality of employment, advising the child of his compensation rights, assistance in securing his award and in its collection, extension of guardianship provisions and a closer tie-up between the compensation department and the rehabilitation service—this is the program which should not be difficult to achieve but remarkably fruitful in results.

Further Resources


Hobbs, Sandy, Jim McKechnie, and Michael Lavalette. Child Labor: A World History Companion. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1999.

Trattner, Walter I. Crusade for the Children: A History of the National Child Labor Committee and Child Labor Reform in America. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1970.

Zelizer, Viviana A. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. New York: Basic Books, 1985.


McConnell, Beatrice. "The Shift in Child Labor." The Survey, May 1933. Available online at ; website home page: (accessed March 4, 2003).

NCLC Fact Sheet. National Child Labor Committee. Available online at ; website home page: (accessed March 4, 2003).

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
"Children Hurt at Work." American Decades Primary Sources, edited by Cynthia Rose, vol. 4: 1930-1939, Gale, 2004, pp. 544-546. Gale Virtual Reference Library, Accessed 17 Feb. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3490200766