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The following is a summary of an article in the February-March 1918 Issue of Safety (the publication of the American Museum of Safety in New York City). The author was Marian K. Clark of the New York State Industrial Commission challenging the inability of many workers to speak English and also their illiteracy in their native language. To what extent is this an issue more than 100 years later?

The article presented some significant statistics and made the argument that

“it is apparent that a large percentage of accidents are caused by the inability of the worker to understand English.”

She advocated an English for Safety Campaign. The goal was to reduce the excessive cost of labor turnover and the cost of compensable accidents for New York employers. She noted that normal turnover is largely increased by industrial accidents. She estimate that the turnover among foreign workers was 15 to 400 percent.

She stated that

“it is clear that none of the very commendable ‘safety first’ movements of that period have either discovered the cause or provided an adequate remedy to effectively reduce either the cost or the number of such accidents.”

She argued that the “English for Safety Campaign” should produce conservation of time and cost and a larger productive power for industry employing non-English speaking workers.

She noted that 60,000 factories in the State of New York employed about 2,000,000 workers and that 1,600,000 were foreign born. Of the latter, 400,000 were unable to read or write even in their own language and 800,000 could not understand or speak English. She felt that this was a barrier to industrial progress and the challenge was to enable them to be worth more, to earn more, and be less liable to injury.

She sought to establish classes in factories and to provide training for teachers who would conduct these classes.

In her article she provided statistics for the state, citing data from 1914, the first year in which the New York Workmen’s Compensation Law was in effect. She noted that New York had 225,000 reported accidents that year and 40,000 of those had compensation. For 1915, there were 270,000 accidents and 50,000 with compensation. In 1916, there were 313,000 accidents and 58,500 compensation cases that cost the state $11,500,000 for the year and $40,000 per day. These costs did not include the cost of medical benefits, administration of the compensation law, lost wages and the cost of worker turnover. With those costs included, the total direct and indirect cost of accidents in New York State for 1917 was $35,000,000 or $117,000 per day.

In addition, the author argued that with WWI underway, it was impossible to replace quality workers, since men were conscripted for military service and immigration was significantly reduced.

Use of night schools to educate foreign-born illiterate individuals was ineffective at solving the language and literacy problem. At the time there were about 500,000 such individuals in New York City. In one year the night school program was able to reach about 55,000. A New York state commission considered making night school attendance compulsory for every illiterate alien over sixteen years of age who lived in New York State. However, such an approach was understood to be unsuccessful. While it may work for younger workers, it would be very difficult to get the majority of older men and women to attend and learn effectively during night school after working all day. In addition, there would not be enough teachers available.

An additional argument involved the national need for military preparedness that relies on industrial efficiency. However, the facts showed that foreign-born workers were essential for industry to operate.

The author pointed to workplace foremen issues. If the foreman does not understand the alien’s language, the non-English speaking worker is inadequately supervised and is handicapped in the performance of the assigned work. The worker cannot look to anyone else for work instructions. While physically sound, the worker is inefficient and ineffective. Training at work can solve that issue.

The article presented an example of a factory that employed 500 women. All were illiterate. This company needed only two work instructors for this group once instruction in English was implemented. Other employers needed one work instructor for every ten employees.

In summary, the author states: “The welfare of both the State and the employer is bound up in the welfare of the industrial worker. The State, the corporation and individual employer owe a moral obligation to our immigrant population.” Implementing the English for Safety Campaign is an immediate, practical way by which accidents can be reduced. The factory is the appropriate place for an effective language school-room.

Photo credit: Photo by Fallon Michael on Unsplash

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