By August Hutchinson
If an employee sued a railroad to address an injury of his, he rarely got what he was looking for. As history Professor Walter Licht writes, “in the early years, the courts ruled in favor of the railroads in practically all employee liability suits. Judges generally applied the common law principle of implied contract, [which] held that an employee engaging to serve a master accepted all conditions of such service, including all the ordinary risks.” Some state governments did hold companies responsible for the accidents of their employees (e.g. Georgia as early as 1855), but that’s about as far as the concept of employer liability had gone in everyday 19th century legal life.
This doesn’t mean that no relief was available - it just came from the railroads on a completely voluntary basis. Even before medical associations rose, companies would often fund the medical care of injured employees and keep them fully or partially on the payroll, or would give them a flat grant. If a man died, railroads would often fund burial expenses and give some money to the widowed family. While a number of the managers certainly had charitable impulses triggered by the unfortunate loss of a fellow human being, a number of others saw providing medical care as a way of boosting loyalty and the company’s public image. And most railroad companies, whether acting altruistically or not, would take the opportunity to make aid contingent on waiving the right to sue them.
If a railroad’s money managers weren’t feeling particularly benevolent, or a railroad refused to provide compensation (like the New Haven & Hartford almost always did), the last place a worker could turn was his labor group. These began forming medical aid program in the sixties, like the Locomotive Engineers’ Mutual Life Insurance Association, established in 1867 to provide assistance both to disabled members and to dead members’ families. Generally speaking, trainmen also collected donations for disabled or deceased comrades.
Companies took the first steps toward their own systematic medical aid in the sixties. Early on, the Central Pacific created the first railroad hospital association. All employees paid about fifty cents per month, and the CP would cover the medical costs of any non-Chinese employee suffering from almost anything other than a venereal disease or a pre-existing condition. In the same decade, railroads like the Chicago & North Western contracted with local physicians to care for accident victims.
Then came the B&O with another innovation in the railroading world: a mutual benefit plan. Employees would pay a premium contingent on his income and his job’s risk level, and receive a daily payout when injured or sick, the amount of which was based on the same criteria. If he died, the family would receive a lump sum of money. In addition, the B&O contracted hospitals in major cities, and though it wouldn’t pay for an employee’s board costs, it would pay for all his medical care. The only catch: anyone who sued over an injury claim automatically lost all benefits.
With the rise of railroad medical organizations came the rise of railroad medical practitioners. The National Association of Railway Surgeons (NARS) would meet for the first time in 1888. Over a quarter of railway surgeons were members by 1895. By 1914, ~14,000 physicians (~10% of the nation’s doctors) were contracted by railroad medical organizations.
With the rise of railroad medical practitioners came the rise of railroad medical practice. One railroad doctor of the era complained that “these operations out in the woods or on the back porch of some filthy house are sometimes criminal.” So, to improve on-site or near-site treatment, railway surgeons developed emergency medical packs to be carried on all trains. They also established important (albeit slightly primitive) screening tests for employees to ensure that they had the basic faculties necessary to execute their jobs. Most importantly, they used a ticking pocket watch to test the ability to hear, and a Snellen chart (the one with the big E at the top in most doctor’s offices) to test the ability to see. Railroads even gave west-coast America its first antiseptic operating room, which cut major surgery fatality rates from 30-40% to 6-7%. And when public health advocates cried for better sanitation in passenger cars, the Pennsylvania, in the eighties, began using a disinfectant, created by its chemist. Then, in 1899 it established a department of bacteriological chemistry to refine the disinfectants and to examine the cars’ drinking water. Such practices spread; by 1914, ~66% of all railroads performed sanitary inspections.
Clearly, the story of railroad safety is a story of imperfect progress. The Safety Appliance Act and subsequent legislation dramatically reduced injuries and deaths caused by coupling, but it didn’t guard against defective couplers. And some railroads still managed to break the law anyway. Bridges and ballast and boilers and rails and heating systems and the research process improved, but without celerity. In spite of hiring practices, a portion of railroaders always had erred and a portion always will err, with or without intent to do so. For the longest time, trainmen had to rely purely on corporate benevolence or expensive private insurance to fund the repair of their oft-acquired wounds. Then, finally, the railroads established their own systematized coverage plans and fueled the creation of a community of doctors especially capable of treating injured trainmen. Of course, even by 1910, railroads still weren’t paragons of safety - if they were, the ‘Safety First’ movement would not have begun that year, or been known for the very significant impact that it had. But it’s important to recognize the accomplishment of unprecedented improvement, and all its imperfections; it’s also important to recognize the agents of that improvement, and all of their imperfections as well.
Write to August at firstname.lastname@example.org