America’s Most Dangerous Woman – Crystal Eastman

October 12, 2008

Crystal Eastman

America’s Most Dangerous Woman

Pioneer of Worker Safety and Worker's Compensation


At turn of the 20th century America’s fifth largest city, Pittsburgh was booming.  It was the center of the growing steel and coal industries. The millionaire industrial tycoons of the 5th Avenue mansions celebrated their success while the working class lived and worked under horrendous conditions.  In 1906 the steel mills, mines, railroads and factories of the Pittsburgh area were human slaughterhouses.  Forced to work long 12 hour days 7 days a week, with unprotected dangerous machinery having few safety controls, at extreme temperatures, and under constant pressure to speed up work, workers were frequently killed and maimed.  During 1906 in Allegheny County 526 workers were killed on the job and hundreds more were injured.  Between 1890 and 1920 the death toll in Pennsylvania coal mines exceeded 1,000 men per year for twenty-six of the thirty year period.  In 1907 alone 1,514 miners were killed in Pennsylvania.  Lost workers were quickly and cheaply replaced with immigrant workers who were streaming to the Pittsburgh area by the thousands.  Bereaved families went uncompensated and injured workers were on their own to pay medical bills.  In addition to its leadership in the Steel Industry, Pittsburgh was also the center of a thriving the prosthesis industry, replacing the lost limbs of thousands of Pittsburgh workers. 





The truism of the day was that workers were careless and responsible for their own injuries and deaths.  Employers believed that 95 percent of all accidents were due to workers' carelessness.  Pennsylvania labor laws at the time were the most one-sided in the nation, strongly favoring employers.  A Pennsylvania law passed in 1901 stated “if the negligence of the party contributed in any degree to the injury he cannot recover damages or compensation.”  Employers placed the blame for the high level of accidents and death on the workers. They rarely paid medical costs or supported injured workers.  Industry and the Pennsylvania government were indifferent to the carnage inflicted on workers limbs, lives and families.




To challenge the truism of the industrial age that attributed the cause of worker injuries and deaths mostly to the workers themselves, the Russell Sage Foundation undertook a study of workplace injuries as part of its Pittsburgh Survey.   The “Pittsburgh Survey” was a massive survey of living and working conditions in Pittsburgh.  Published in six volumes, it was well widely read and revealed in detail the social deprivation suffered by the workers of Pittsburgh.

The Pittsburgh Survey’s quantitative study of workplace injuries was undertaken to find their root causes and to measure the damage to the economy and quality of life.  A bright young woman, Crystal Eastman, a graduate of Vassar (1903), with an M.A. in sociology from Columbia (1904), and who recently graduated second in her class at the New York University Law School (1907), was hired in 1907 to undertake this study.  She came to Pittsburgh for a two month project but stayed more that a year investigating the industrial accidents that occurred in Allegheny County during 1906-1907.  In her study she examined the causes of the accidents and deaths along with their profound impact on workers families.

Eastman gathered data on all industrial deaths for one year and on accidents for a three month period in the Allegheny County.  Over a thousand accident cases were documented.  Eastman and her investigators identified the cause of each accident, who was at fault, and the financial effects on each worker’s family.  They examined coroner’s file, interviewed witnesses, and followed the plight of 132 worker families up to eighteen months after accidents.  Workers in the steel, mining, and railroad industries were studied.  What distinguished Eastman as a safety research was her rigorous detailed data collection along with her deep compassion for the plight of the workers and their families.

Crystal Eastman sought to answer two questions:

·         What was the actual distribution of blame for accidents to workers and employers?

·         Which group, the workers or the employers incurred the highest economic burden from work accidents?

Causes of Worker Deaths and Accidents

Eastman's answer to the question of blame for accidents contradicted the prevailing views of the day. Eastman refuted the conviction that worker carelessness was the cause of 95% of accidents and deaths with statistical findings showing that:

·         Of the 377 accidents surveyed for which fault could be attributed, 30% were solely the employers' fault.

·         Only 44% could be partially blamed on the victim or fellow workmen.

·         Of the 132 deaths found to be the victim's fault, 47 cases (35%) involved very young or inexperienced workers, or those with physical conditions that made them vulnerable.

·         Only 85 cases (23%) were incurred by experienced, able‑bodied victims of "carelessness"


The study commented:  “For the heedless ones, no defense is made. For the inattentive we maintain that human powers of attention, universally limited, are in their case further limited by the conditions under which the work is done — long hours, heat, noise, intense speed. For the reckless ones we maintain that natural inclination is in their case encouraged and inevitably increased by an occupation involving constant risk.”

Eastman wrote that the “careless” workers were put under press to cut corners:

“If a hundred times a day a man is required to take necessary risks, it is not in reason to expect him to stop there and never take an unnecessary risk. Extreme caution is as unprofessional among the men in dangerous trades as fear would be in a soldier.”

The Economic Impact of Work Deaths and Injuries

·         Of the 526 workers deaths in 1906-1907 survey period, 45% involved survivors.

·         Of the survivors, 53% received $100 or less in compensation from the employer.

·         Of the 509 workmen injured in a three month period, employers paid hospital costs for 84%, but only 37% percent received any benefits after their hospitalization.

Eastman wrote. "For our present purpose this fact is significant enough:  In over one-half of the deaths and injuries … the employers assumed absolutely no share of the inevitable income loss.”

“If we were to regard the year’s industrial fatalities in Allegheny County as one overwhelming disaster in which the dead numbered 526, its most appalling feature would be that it fell exclusively upon workers, bread winners.  Among those killed there were no aged helpless persons, no idle-merry-makers, no irresponsible children.  The people who perished were those upon whom the world leans.”

“A crippling injury to a bread winner could be more devastating than death….When a man is disabled by injury, the number in the family remains the same, and their situation is further complicated by the presence of a sick man to be feed and cared for – an invalid whose recovery is delayed by the very conditions of increasing poverty and anxiety which his injury caused and which his recovery alone can terminate.”



“Worker Accidents and the Law”

Crystal Eastman’s findings and recommendations were published in 1910 in the classic report entitled “Work Accidents and the Law”.  It is regarded a major factor leading to the passage of worker health and safety laws in the United States.  It was republished in 1970. The report highlighted inadequate worker safety laws and the need for safety protections on machinery.  The report exposed the paltry sums of compensation paid for worker injury and deaths.  After the publication of the report, many companies began to look at worker accidents and deaths and as a problem to be solved, not a business cost.  With the explosive growth in unions there was great pressure to improve working conditions and many companies began to institute safety programs.

Calls were made for the passage of workers compensation laws, which had already adopted in Europe.  But in Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania, the progressive legislative reforms called for in Crystal Eastman’s report, were thwarted by the repressive political machine controlled by Pittsburgh’s industrialists.

Following her stay in Pittsburgh, the governor of New York appointed Eastman to a New York State commission in 1909 to investigate work accidents and to recommend legislation.  While serving on the commission, Eastman authored the first workman’s compensation law to be passed in the United States.  It became the model for laws passed in other states.  The courts struck down the law shortly before the Triangle Shirt Factory fire that killed 146 women.  The outrage over that tragedy propelled the passage of workers compensation laws by many state legislatures including Pennsylvania. 

During Woodrow Wilson’s presidency Eastman served as an investigating attorney for the U.S Commission on Industrial Relations throughout 1913 and 1914 and continued to campaign for occupational safety.


Eastman Fights For Women's Suffrage and Founds the ACLU

Crystal Eastman went on to become a dynamic activist for woman’s suffrage, feminism, social justice, and world peace working as a journalist, attorney, and political organizer.  She became a founder of the National Woman’s Party in 1913 that campaigned for women’s suffrage.  After women won the right to vote in 1923, Eastman and three others authored the first Equal Rights Amendment.  During World War I she founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which exists today.  Also during the War Eastman organized the National Civil Liberties Bureau to protect the rights of conscientious objectors.  That organization became the American Civil Liberties Union and she was the attorney in charge.  With her brother Max Eastman she owned and edited the Liberator, a journal of politics, art, and literature from 1918 to 1922.

From 1919 to 1921 a “Red Scare” occurred in the United State.  Crystal Eastman was labeled as a “Red” dangerous un-American.  Called the “most dangerous woman in America”, the FBI put her under surveillance. Her speeches were recorded and her journals were banned from the mail.  Blacklisted and unemployable, she spent the majority of her last years in exile in England.  She returned to New York in 1927 after the death of her husband and died ten months later from Nephritis at the age of forty eight.

Crystal Eastman was an important national leader who accomplished much to be that affects our daily lives during her short life. She wrote pioneering workers compensation legislation, campaigned for work place safety, fought for woman’s suffrage and equal rights, and founded the ACLU and the other long lasting political organizations.

The Continuing Need for Work Place Safety and Workers Compensation Programs

Annually, approximately 4.2 million workers are injured on the job in the
United States.  Over 5,000 are killed on the job and another 50,000 die due to occupational exposure. American workers need a strong OSHA and MSHA to protect workers safety and health.

For a detailed look at Pittsburgh in 1907 – Read "Work Accidents and the Law"

Crystal Eastman’s “Work Accidents and the Law” is can be read online and downloaded at  It contains the stories of Pittsburgh workers and their families.


Crystal Eastman – By Mike Stout

Hail Crystal Eastman – A Spirt of the Free Women – She Lead the Fight to Right So Many Wrongs

History of Workplace Safety narrated by Studs Terkel


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