Death at work? Mortality and industrial employment in Belgian cities at the turn of the twentieth century
In a newly published article in Explorations in Economic History, Tina Van Rossem, Patrick Deboosere and Isabelle Devos reconstruct the sex- and age-specific mortality rates for the 25 largest Belgian cities at the turn of the twentieth century, and explore their relationship with industrialization.
In this article, we reconstruct the sex- and age-specific mortality rates for the 25 largest Belgian cities at the turn of the twentieth century, and we explore their relationship with industrialization. Whereas previous research has focused mainly on the general level of industrial employment, we make a distinction between two production systems: cottage work (i.e., employment at home) and regular industrial production (i.e., centralized employment). Our linear regression models suggest that cities oriented toward cottage industry were more lethal than those oriented toward regular industry. Cities where a substantial percentage of the labor force was engaged in cottage work suffered high mortality rates, which confirms contemporary claims that in Belgium the cottage industry was “the most murderous of all industries.” Regular industrial employment, on the other hand, appears to have been less harmful for men and women alike, both young and old. We do observe, however, a detrimental effect from female regular industrial employment on infant and child mortality. Using contemporary government reports and sociological works, we were able to gain insights into the possible pathways that created these large health discrepancies between production systems. We argue that the health hazards encountered by cottage workers were due to the absence of labor and wage regulations and to the lack of health and safety standards in cottage work. In many sectors of the regular industry—and in heavy industry in particular—numerous regulations of this type had already been enforced by emerging labor union organizations, resulting in improvements in working conditions and higher wages. Furthermore, regular heavy industry seems to have attracted the healthiest workers.
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