1915 accident puts focus on improvements in worker safety

1915 accident puts focus on improvements in worker safety

ST. LOUIS – When Marie Moentmann left her home in far south St. Louis on the morning of Nov. 5, 1915, she may have greeted friends on their way to school.

Then the 15-year-old resident of the 8400 block of Michigan Avenue made her way to a different destination: the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills Co., just south of the current Busch Stadium. Once there, she assumed her position feeding bags into a printing machine.

A newspaper story later told what happened next:

“As she was feeding a bag into the press, it became caught and when she tried to release it one of her hands was caught. She tried to release it with the other and both hands were caught and drawn between the cylinders and so badly crushed and mangled that they had to be amputated that day.”

What remained was a right arm four inches below the shoulder and her left arm halfway between her wrist and her elbow. With artificial limbs, she had limited use of her arms. From then until she died in 1974, she would never be the same.

Today, just before Labor Day 2019, her case serves as an example of the kind of industrial accident that’s less likely to happen, in part because of labor unions. 

The number of deaths per 100,000 workers declined from 61 in 1913 to 3.5 in 2017. Workers Compensation insurance established a system for paying claims for injuries, although some in unions say it benefited management more than workers.

Strict regulations imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration helped bring a vast decrease in workplace injuries and deaths since the agency was established in 1971. The average number of worker deaths per day declined from about 38 in 1970 to 14 in 2017. Workplace injuries per 100 workers went from 10.9 in 1972 to 2.8 in 2017.

“All of those things over the years have progressed mainly because of labor unions,” said Pat White, president of the Greater St Louis Labor Council AFL-CIO. His organization will celebrate the gains at the Greater St. Louis Labor Day Parade at 9 a.m. Monday at 15th and Olive streets downtown.

Marie Moentmann might enjoy hearing about the improvements.

“If the accident which deprived me of my hands and part of my arms has resulted in throwing all the safety devices possible around the dangerous machinery in factories which employ boys and girls and has brought about the passage of just compensation laws for the care of those who are maimed for life, then I am happy that my misfortune has accomplished some benefit for others,” she told a reporter in 1919.

St. Louis papers noted that the girl accepted her fate stoically. They fought to provide sympathetic readers with every detail about campaigns, including a society event, to give her gifts and cash in the days leading up to Christmas 1915. 

 

Through her mother, the girl sued the company for $100,000, the equivalent of about $2.5 million today. The suit contended that safety equipment that could have prevented the accident had been removed and that someone under the minimum working age of 16 never should have been hired for the work. It also said the accident had made her unable to care for herself for the rest of her life.

The suit ended with a cash settlement of $21,000, of which $5,000 went for hospital and lawyer’s bills and $16,000, or between $375,000 and $400,000 today, to Moentmann. She said s

he was pleased with the settlement, but added, “You know, all the money in the world won’t pay me for my arms.”

Plant Manager F.W. Hummert pleaded guilty to employing girls under 16 and working them for more than eight hours a day. He was fined $25 and court costs on each of the two charges. The state factory inspector who brought the case encouraged the judge to be lenient, because the company had made a large settlement and had brought its precautions within the law.

David Kaplan, a professor of management at St. Louis University, said that employee compensation cases now were handled through workers compensation insurance. Companies can fight claims and may introduce such evidence against workers as videotapes of them playing golf or moving a couch after the allegedly disabling incident. 

Further, workers compensation goes only goes to employees and not to contract workers doing “gig” work, he said.

In workers compensation, each part of the body is assigned a specific amount of value, Kaplan said. In Moentmann’s case, she would receive so much for one arm and hand down to four inches from her right shoulder, and a hand and arm to halfway between the elbow and the wrist.

White noted that companies came up with workers compensation after they got tired of injured workers’ suing companies.

“Unions are still actively involved in lobbying for worker rights,” Kaplan said. They were involved in getting OSHA established. However, he said, “They’ve been playing more defense than offense.”

One union that has long been involved in worker safety is the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and its St. Louis branch, IBEW Local 1.

The IBEW was founded at the beginning of the electrical era, when many electrical workers died. 

“Our union was formed in St. Louis in 1891 specifically for safety reasons,” said John Kahrhoff, a business representative with IBEW Local 1. A key issue was providing a death benefit. 

Early on, the union dealt with the need for training. The Department of Labor soon adopted that as well as standards for certain jobs, Kahrhoff said. For example, two journeymen electricians are required when on jobs involving more than 480 volts. Extensive training, especially in safety, also is a requirement, he said.

Kahrhoff said unions would continue to work for safety on the job. It’s the kind of action Moentmann would appreciate.

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