In the mid-1860s, the United States was beginning to industrialize. As forests east of the Mississippi River disappeared, coal was becoming an important energy source, both for industry and in the home. The work of getting coal to consumers was hazardous.
Coal mining and processing were some of the most dangerous occupations. After mining the coal, laborers removed any impurities and broke the chunks of coal into smaller pieces, all by hand. This dangerous work offered low wages, forcing many poor families in coal country to send children to work, some as young as 8 years old.
These children, called “breaker boys,” would nimbly remove slate, rocks and other impurities from the coal as it came down a chute or conveyor belt. Others would break the coal into smaller chunks and sort out the sellable pieces.
Breaker boys working in Ewen Breaker of Pennsylvania Coal Co., 1911, South Pittston, Pennsylvania.
Breaker boys of Pennsylvania Coal Co., 1911
South Pittston, Pennsylvania
Photo: National Child Labor Committee collection,
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
The boys didn’t wear gloves, masks or other safety equipment, despite facing many dangers. This was common—safety was often an afterthought to productivity in the late 1800s. Breaker boys often cut their hands on the slate or had fingers amputated. Some would become caught in the conveyor belt and be flung into the grinding gears of the machinery. Those who fell into the flow of coal were crushed or smothered by the mass. Many lost their feet, legs, hands, or arms. Wet coal leached sulfuric acid, which burned their unprotected hands. Dry coal kicked up dust, which can cause asthma and black lung disease.
In 1885, public outrage led to Pennsylvania enacting a law forbidding anyone under the age of 13 to work as a coal breaker. Like other early labor laws, the law was poorly enforced. Many employers simply wrote false birthdates on hiring papers, while some families forged birth certificates so their children could work to help support their family.
Breaker boys formed unions and participated in several well-known strikes, including the 1897 Lattimer Massacre and the 1902 coal strike. Breaker boys joined older miners in marching for better wages and workplace safety standards. By the 1920s, several factors help bring the boys out of the mines. New laws made school attendance mandatory, machinery could do the work faster, and public outrage ended the era of breaker boys. The National Child Labor Committee, the National Consumers League, and the work of photographer Lewis Hine showed the brutal working conditions the breaker boys endured. This helped change public sentiment and forced lawmakers to enact the first child labor laws.
Today, mining is still a dangerous job, but modern safety standards are in place to help protect workers. Personal protective equipment is required, most work is done by machine, and safety is a top priority for employers. New child labor laws restricted the kinds of work that workers under 18 years old can do. Now, young workers are prohibited from working in mines. These actions have helped to make work much safer today than it was for the breaker boys.
In the weeks leading to Labor Day on September 2, we take a look at five historical cases of unsafe working conditions that helped contribute to improvements in workplace safety we all benefit from today. Stay tuned for part four in the series: The Radium Girls.
Read the first part of the series: Blood, sweat, and trees... How L&I came to be
Part two of the series: The fire that ignited change - the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory