Archive ID: 1981-051-5

Exhibit of the Illinois Steel Company in the American Museum of Safety

Date Created: undated

Created By: U.S. Steel

Donor: William Ferry

Media Type: Photograph

Language: English


Steel mills are dangerous places to work. This was particularly true in the early days of the steel industry. In 1905, Robert J. Young began a study of injuries at the South Works plant of Illinois Steel in South Chicago (part of the US Steel conglomerate). The resulting South Works Committee of Safety would recommend 3,000 changes based on close analysis of their plant operations. Even with the changes implemented, however, high death rates continued. In 1907, journalist William Hard wrote a muck-racking article about the dangers of working at South Works. The article, titled “Making Steel, Killing Men,” noted that 45 workers had died at the mill in 1906. It was estimated that 598 out of approximately 10,000 employees suffered substantial injuries or were permanently disabled that year. More specific information was unavailable because South Works failed to publicly release information about fatalities and injuries or to answer questions from reporters. South Works maintained its own hospital alongside an internal police force and fire department. According to a 1906 news article, information about accidents only filtered outside the South Works “fortress” when the “death wagon” was called to bring workers who had died from the mill hospital to local funeral parlors. Like saloons and churches, funeral parlors were disproportionately represented near the gates of South Chicago’s steel mills. Minimal assistance was given to workers or families after such accidents.

In response to the public outcry over deaths and injuries, US Steel would begin a national safety program for all their mills in 1908, modeled on the one it had just developed at South Works. This display at the American Museum of Safety, founded in 1907, would exhibit work from this South Works program during the early 1910s. In 1981, U.S. Steel-South Works managers donated a series of albums to the Southeast Chicago Historical Project with images apparently dating from 1911-1912 found in this exhibit. These albums were the outcome of the Committee of Safety work begun by Robert J. Young. These albums contained early 20th century photographs of safety gear prototypes and mill operations as they were being inspected for possible changes to address safety concerns. These images offer a fascinating historical record of the early steel mills and their dangers. Despite such early safety programs, many Southeast Chicago steelworkers in oral histories described continuing dangers and horrific accidents in later decades.

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Mills   South Works   Steel Industry   1900-1919 (WWI Era)   Other/Unknown   Other/Unknown   Photograph   1981-051   Carnegie-Illinois Steel   Exhibits   Industry   Labor   Mills   Museums   Photograph   Photographs   Safety   South Works   Steel   Steel industry   U.S. Steel