Today, many people think of Washington for its thriving technology, trade, and agriculture industries. But when Washington became the 42nd state in 1889, logging was the dominant industry.
Logging then was a lot different than today. Early workers set off dynamite charges to bring down trees—some nearly 400 feet tall. It was a dangerous profession with little protection for workers: mentorship and whatever equipment they could cobble together. Better protections would come decades later at great cost and loss of life.
Loggers on Break, Washington Territory Views, Circa 1889
by C.E. & Hattie King. Washington State Historical Society Collection
Less than 10 years after statehood, Washington created the Bureau of Labor, the first step towards creating systems to protect workers. Although the Bureau set some safety standards, it had little funding and rules were poorly enforced.
Senseless workplace tragedies, like the Chehalis Dynamite Explosion in 1911, spurred drastic change. The Legislature passed the “Workmens’ Compensation Act,” establishing the Industrial Insurance Department. Workers, employers, unions, and lawmakers came together to implement this important piece of legislation.
No system is perfect though. Workers still suffered with poor workplace safety standards, 10-hour shifts, and machines that were designed for efficiency, not safety, under the first version of workmens’ compensation. Lumberjack John Van Dell knew this all too well.
After being injured on the job by a log hitting him in the back in 1917, he was unable to return to work at his full ability. Although he was paid for his medical expenses, there was not yet a way for him to receive a payout for loss of earning power or permanent disability.
In frustration, Van Dell walked into the industrial insurance commissioner’s office and fatally shot him. Van Dell turned himself into the sheriff’s office, saying, “They meant to starve me, and I won’t be starved. I killed him because he wouldn’t pay me more money. I couldn’t work and I couldn’t beg so I thought might as well be in the state penitentiary as any other place.” This case led to more changes by highlighting the desperation injured workers faced when they were unable to return to work.
In 1919, the Legislature established the State Safety Board. Two years later, the Department of Labor and Industries was created to manage the responsibilities of the Industrial Insurance Department and all the other safety, medical and labor boards.
Over the last 100 years, L&I has improved on our mission to “Keep Washington Safe and Working.” With our mission as the driving force behind what we do, we have reduced workplace injury and helped injured workers heal and return to work.
In the weeks leading to Labor Day on September 2, 2019, we’ll take a look at five historical cases of unsafe working conditions that helped contribute to improvements in workplace safety we all benefit from today. In two weeks, part two in the series: A fire that ignited change – the Triangle shirtwaist factory.