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Children Hurt at Work: 1932

Children Hurt at Work

Gertrude Folks Zimand, Director Research and Publicity, National Child Labor Committee

The Survey, July 15, 1932, p.326

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 adequate compensation and in some cases 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 retrained 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 re-education 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 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 their 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 a program which should be not difficult to achieve but remarkably fruitful in results.



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How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Zimand, G.F. (1932, July). Children hurt at work. The Survey, 68(8), 326. Retrieved from