The Most Dangerous Places to Work in Guelph
Lumber Mills, Furniture Factories and Other Deadly Delights
The wood-cutting machinery of the time was dangerous. Planers, stave cutters, circular saws, planing machine, buzz saw, jointing machine, gear cutter machine, jointer, shaper, cross-cut saw, shears and buzz planer were found in many factories. Their sharp blades and fine-honed teeth were not protected; there was no guard between a worker and their oh so sharp edges. In 1886, four men from the same shop were off work due to cut fingers. This made Stewart’s Lumber Mill, Bell’s Organ & Piano Factory, Raymond’s Sewing Machine Factory, Burr Brothers Furniture Factory, Gowdy’s Agricultural Works, Skinner’s Furniture Manufactory, the Tolton Bros. Agricultural Works, J. B. Armstrong’s Carriage Factory and many others, the most dangerous places to work in Guelph. Workers lost fingers, hands, thumbs and even arms. This was not, as employers and, later, factory inspectors, would have it believed, the fault of the worker. They were not all careless. The lack of protection was at fault. There was, at first, no guard between the blade and the operator. Combining this with the employment of green hands with little or no training, the result was predictable.
Sharp Edged Tools
In Guelph, over half of the accidents in factories were the product of buzz saws, planers, shapers and other sharp tools. The loss of body parts to such machinery was a common occurrence at:
- Raymond’s Sewing Machine Factory
- Bell’s Organs & Piano
- Burr & Skinner’s Furniture Factory
- McCandless and Richardson’s Wood
- Harris & Co.’s Organ Furnishing Factory
- James Organ Factory
One of the earliest known accidents in Guelph occurred when a Mr. Henry, working for Hockin’s Cooperage in 1866, had his hand cut off by a stave cutter. In 1871, while working at Stewart’s, Theodore Cross lost a thumb to a circular saw. He fared better than Thomas Sale, who lost three fingers of his right hand in 1881. Bell’s had several accidents occur within a single day, in 1867. Nor did the situation seem to improve in time. In 1897, James Johns at Bell’s left hand was so badly mangled it had to be amputated.
After the Factory Law of 1884, little changed. In 1899, the Factory Inspector for the district stated wood-working machinery was responsible for about 54 per cent of all the accidents. Although dangerous machinery was to be guarded, employers interpreted it according to their needs using section 11(3) “so far as is reasonably practicable”. The courts also reinterpreted the law. They felt guards should apply only to the transitive and not the moving parts of a machine. As a result, power sources needed to be protected; blades did not. The implementation of change was difficult within a culture that blamed accidents as either unavoidable or the fault of the worker.
Foundries: Molten Metal and Rusty Ladles
Workmen were busily engaged turning out wrought iron into such shape to be ready for the machine shop. The moulding shop is a scene of animation about half past four o’clock each day. It is here the small army of men are busily engaged making ready to pour molten iron. The roar of the fan is heard, while orders are given in a higher key by the foreman. At last everything is ready and the cupola is tapped. All have ladles in which to catch the liquid iron. After a number of boxes have been poured, and the steam from the damp sand begins to fill the building, nothing looks more like the picture of some other world where imps are said to have their abode. (Description of the blacksmith and moulding shops of Levi Cossit’s Agricultural Implement Works, March, 1878.)
Foundries were also dangerous places in which to work. Guelph had several moulding shops in operation in the 19th century:
- Wellington Foundry
- George Sunley’s Tin Shop
In addition, some factories incorporated foundry work into their assembly of products. The Guelph Carriage Works, Cossitt’s Implements and Raymond’s had metal work to be done. At such foundries, workers were faced with a number of health and safety issues. Extremes of temperature were first on the list. Outdoors it could be -10 degrees centigrade while indoors the furnaces and fires kept temperatures at close to 90 degrees C. The older shops were cold and damp. Night casting of metals produced gas and smoke in a confined space with poor to no ventilation. This made conditions ideal for pneumonia and other respiratory problems. There have been no studies done in Canada on the impact of such extreme conditions upon workers. The data collector for Guelph in 1889, however, remarked that colds were not uncommon when the temperature indoors differed from outdoors in such extremes.
In addition to the molten metal and the toxic fumes, workers faced serious issues when it came to the condition of the equipment in use. Foundry work was quite primitive in nature. Men would carry molten metal in metal ladles. They would then pour the metal into the moulds and return for more. If the ladle was defective, if someone or something jarred your arm as you passed, or if the ladle was rusted at the bottom, a worker would end up with molten metal pouring down his legs and into his boots. The pain was excruciating, the damage irreparable. Yet, this was life for foundry workers and so many others during the 19th and early 20th centuries.