Author Charles Dickens was famous for his depictions of 19th Century life and the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the working class. Dickens himself had a difficult life, forced into a workhouse pasting labels on shoe polish at age 12 after his father went to debtors’ prison.
Dickens understood factory life well in his era, and he’d probably have a lot to say about workplace safety and quality.
In this post, we take a look at several iconic Dickens stories, mining them for some truly Victorian quality and safety insights.
Hard Times is set in Coketown, an imaginary mill-town town in Northern England. The book is a satirical takedown of the Utilitarian philosophy, criticized by Dickens and others as placing cold calculation above personal considerations and values.
In the book, school superintendent Thomas Gradgrind is relentlessly focused on facts and profits. His children, Louisa and Tom, are raised in this way, trained to see everything through figures and statistical analysis. Louisa is emotionally stunted and is practically destroyed by it, a spinster after a ruined marriage, while her brother becomes a calculating, degenerate gambler.
Quality and safety management are necessarily utilitarian approaches, using facts and logic to inform decision-making. But the lesson from Dickens is that we can’t focus on numbers at the exclusion of all else. Worker’s comp costs are one thing, but only by acknowledging the personal costs can we internalize an authentic commitment to improving safety culture—whatever the resources needed to do it.
Oliver Twist somewhat mirrors the story of Dickens himself, opening on a poor orphan forced to labor in a workhouse from the age of nine. It was there Oliver utters the famous words, “Please, sir, I want some more,” referring to the watered-down gruel he and the other boys suffered day in and day out.
Just barely escaping being sold off to a chimney sweep, he’s instead sent to apprentice an undertaker. Due to deplorable working conditions and repeat safety incidents at the undertaker’s, Oliver runs off to London. He falls in with a band of criminals that include the Artful Dodger and Fagin, all because they offer him a free meal and housing.
The lessons here? Mistreatment and a culture of blame do not make people work harder, and poor safety conditions are directly related to employee turnover.
Conversely, even an underdog employer can build a loyal workforce simply by offering a little kindness and a few meager perks.
Dickens returns to the topic of mistreated children in Nicholas Nickleby, the story of a young man struggling to support his mother and sister after the death of his father.
Nicholas initially lands a position as an assistant to Wackford Squeers, a hateful schoolmaster at a bleak boarding school in Yorkshire. Not only is this man an abusive tyrant, he’s also an incompetent teacher who thinks window is spelled “W-I-N, win, D-E-R, der!”
After getting into an altercation with Squeers over his mistreatment of an orphan named Smike, Nicholas rescues the boy from the boarding school. They head for London, where Nicholas takes positions ranging from French instructor to actor to finally some sort of clerk for a pair of kindly brothers. The Cheeryble brothers invest in employee training for Nicholas, ultimately giving him the start he always needed.
A Christmas Carol
One of the author’s most famous books, A Christmas Carol, opens on Bob Cratchit pathetically trying to warm himself by a candle, freezing half to death in his office. Scrooge holds the key to the coal box and is miserly in giving out coal. While he has a small fire, Cratchit has what amounts to a single coal to warm his “dismal little cell” as Dickens calls it.
Setting aside the industrial hygiene implications of burning coal indoors (which apparently Victorians weren’t concerned about), clearly Scrooge has a lot to learn about creating a comfortable working environment. As part of his transformation, he travels back in time to a holiday party where his former employer, Fezziwig, reminds him of what it means to take care of your employees.
By the end of the story, Scrooge has seen the error of his ways. He vows to make amends, promising Cratchit a raise, assistance for his family and even another coal bucket for the office. And with a safer working environment—one where Cratchit is less likely to get a stiff neck or other ergonomic injury—his work is also likely to improve in quality.
While his work mainly focused on highlighting social injustices of the era, Dickens also has a lot to teach us about workplace quality and safety.
Above all, organizations can learn that compassion always wins over a dictatorial approach, and that those who put people first will ultimately perform better in the long run.