NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Louis Brandeis, Work and Fatigue at the Start of the Twentieth Century: Prelude to Oregon's Hours Limitation Law

Jeremy Atack, Fred Bateman

NBER Historical Working Paper No. 25
Issued in May 1991
NBER Program(s):   DAE

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was considerable interest among the scientific and business communities in the relationship between work, fatigue, health and productivity. Study after study not only documented well-known relationships between occupation and disease such as mercury poisoning among "mad hatters" but also an increasing body of evidence suggested a causal chain between fatigue induced by long hours of work, specific occupational characteristics and weakened resistance to diseases, especially viral diseases such as tuberculosis that posed specific public health, as well as private health, hazards. This evidence first persuaded the Courts to allow limitations upon the hours of work for women on the grounds of protecting the "weaker sex" and the health of future generations as a public health regulation. Eventually such limits were extended to all workers. In this paper, we analyze the data from an 1892 California Bureau of Labor Statistics survey of 3,493 wage-earners that provides some evidence on the relationship between hours of work and time in a job and worsening health or days of absence from work as a result of ill-health. We conclude that these data support the hypothesis that long hours of work each day in hot and poorly ventilated workshops performing physically or mentally exhausting work at a pace set by inanimate machines was bad for employee health. However, it is hard to make a convincing case for the public regulation of hours and conditions in the workplace as a public, as opposed to a private, health question, except in the case of children, including children in utero, or communicable diseases such as tuberculosis.

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