New Zealand is often viewed as a ‘social laboratory’ for the world with legislation abolishing sweating an integral part. Such legislation was durable and preceded the better-known Liberal reforms of the 1890s. There was a disjunction between this moral reforming imperative that derived from Britain and the reality of colonial workplace conditions. We should be cautious in accepting claims of widespread sweating; the legislation was aimed more at prevention than cure. Furthermore, workplaces outside manufacturing that employed many more workers displayed far worse conditions. The concern over sweating led to much regulation of hours of work and sweeping registration powers in the small manufacturing sector but little else. Into the twentieth century the Department of Labour established a professional inspectorate that relied largely upon a flexible compliance approach but the promotion of occupational health and safety remained a low priority, in part because of the persistence of nineteenth-century concerns with sweating. It was not until after the Second World War, following the substantial development of manufacturing, that New Zealand began to modernise its legislation and health and safety became a priority.