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Work safety in the early 1900’s? Yikes!

By Theresa Trant

It’s the early 1900’s. Imagine being one of 3,000 workers building a ship equal to 10 stories high and four city blocks long. Imagine doing this without the safety equipment we have today.

I just came back from vacation which included a visit to Belfast and the Titanic museum.

I’m not one for museums; in fact I usually start yawning within 10 minutes of entering one. I feared the same would happen with this experience until a comment by a museum employee caught my ear. He said the Titanic construction was considered a success even though approximately 17 workers lost their lives. I asked him how that could be considered a success. He said that with a project that size they (the shipping company) estimated lives lost would be double that amount. An interesting way to look at it; he had my attention.

Work conditions were dirty, physically hazardous, involving hard manual labour. Not much different from today with large construction projects. However today we have safety equipment, standards, and rules designed to protect our workers.

In the early 1900’s, specifically in building the Titanic, personal safety equipment did not exist. There were some lifts to take workers to the higher levels of the scaffolding but many workers feared the lifts so chose to climb the scaffolding instead. They climbed without hard hats, security ropes, gloves, etc. Falls were a reality they lived with every day.

titanic 1

Over 3,000,000 rivets were used in building this ship. This was a strenuous, manual process which resulted in many fingers being severely injured or lost. The foreman was known as ‘the hat’ as he wore a bowler hat to mark his seniority. The bowler hat also protected him from rivets accidentally dropped from above.

titanic 2


Ear protection did not exist so many workers were suffering from hearing loss by the time they were in their mid-twenties.

Tight, cramped and uncomfortable positioning lead to many musculo-skeletal injuries.

When it came time to launch the Titanic several men were in charge of knocking out the huge timber supports that held the ship upright. This was an extremely dangerous task. One of the heavy supports fell on top of a worker crushing him to death. “He’s away to the other yard” was a saying for when a man died on the job.

Heavy manual work still exists today however in today’s world we have ingenious equipment and safety protection that go a long way to keeping our workers safe. It’s hard to imagine the work conditions and risks these 3,000 men lived with for the three years it took to build the Titanic.

Have a safety history story to share? Tell us by leaving a comment or sending us a tweet @HeadsUpAB.






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