NFPA Celebrates 125 Years of Championing Workplace Safety

NFPA Celebrates 125 Years of Championing Workplace Safety

Let’s take a look back at all the National Fire Protection Association has done to advance worker protection in the past 125 years.

Over the past year, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has been celebrating quite the milestone: 125 years of protecting people and property. NFPA understands that not many businesses get to celebrate a milestone quite this large, and acknowledges that they did not get to this place alone. It is because of a broad range of stakeholders, including readers of OH&S, that the Association has been able to ensure that fire and life safety practices are always evolving to meet the challenges of the times.

In fact, NFPA was established so that a workplace challenge could be addressed. The organization began to take shape when nine different standards for the size of piping and spacing of sprinklers were being used within a 100-mile radius of Boston—creating utter chaos and concern for business owners and skilled labor alike. The result was NFPA 13, Standard for the Installation of Sprinkler Systems, the first standard created by NFPA.

One year later, the "National Electrical Code of 1897” made its debut. Today, NFPA 70, National Electrical Code (or the NEC, as it is commonly known) is the benchmark for safe electrical design, installation, and inspection. NFPA 70E is used in all 50 states and is followed in jurisdictions around the globe.

As the United States entered the 20th century, it became clear that standards were needed in other areas too—sometimes at the urging of labor groups or policy makers, sometimes it was professionals in a field or due to public outcry after a catastrophe.

In 1911, the level of public outcry was deafening. In March of that year, 146 workers tragically died at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company Factory in New York City. Employees, mostly immigrant women and children between the ages of 14 and 23, either jumped from the burning building to their deaths or died from smoke inhalation due to blocked egress routes. The building had only one exterior fire escape and the interior exit stairs were either compromised by fire or locked and unavailable for use as managers were accustomed to locking doors to exits and stairwells to prevent theft.

This horrific event led to workplace safety reform and labor rights, largely championed by Frances Perkins, one of the first female members of NFPA and the first woman to serve in the President's Cabinet, working as Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945. The harrowing incident also led to the development of the Buildings Exit Code, which became NFPA 101, Life Safety Code.

NFPA has a long history of establishing standards of practice for confined space entry and works to ensure that workers are protected from harm. Confined spaces include crawl spaces, grain bins, manholes, below-grade vaults, tanks of all types, elevator shafts, and some tunnels that are often entered for repair, inspection, and maintenance. These settings are not designed for an employee to work in all day.

In 1922, at the request of stakeholders from the maritime transportation and shipbuilding industries, the Association developed an appendix to the NFPA Regulations Governing Marine Fire Hazards that required oil tankers to be completely free of gases or vapors caused by flammable or combustible liquid cargo or fuel before undergoing any repair operations involving hot work (welding, soldering, cutting, or brazing). It also required that, before anyone entered any confined space to perform work, a competent chemist tested and inspected the confined space to determine if it was safe.

In 1965, NFPA took over the Marine Chemist program at the request of those same industry stakeholders and developed the Rules for the Certification and Recertification of Marine Chemists which covers the qualifications needed for determining whether construction, alteration, repair, or shipbreaking of vessels can be done safely in accordance with NFPA 306, Standard for the Control of Gas Hazards on Vessels.

In more recent years, NFPA released NFPA 350, Guide for Safe Confined Space Entry which helps various workers identify, evaluate, assess, and either eliminate or control hazards in or around all kinds of confined spaces. NFPA 350 goes beyond the minimum requirements that have been established by regulations and standards so workers can avoid toxic contaminants, oxygen deficient or enriched environments, and flammable vapors in these settings.

Now, let’s switch gears to an entirely different industry: electrical services. In 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Act was established to help protect workers in the United States; a year later Congress created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA is the undisputed occupational safety authority responsible for setting and enforcing standards and providing training, outreach, education, and assistance. However, OSHA decided early on that an organization like NFPA, with a long history of developing codes and standards for the fire, life safety, and electrical safety worlds, would be a great fit for developing a standard on electrical safety in the workplace. NFPA responded accordingly with NFPA 70E, Standard for Electrical Safety in the Workplace which helps to protect personnel by reducing exposure to major electrical hazards and reducing the likelihood of on-the-job injuries and fatalities due to shock, electrocution, arc flash, and arc blast.

OSHA impresses “what workers and business owners have to do,” while NFPA 70E explains “how workers and business owners can actually accomplish what OSHA requires.” Understanding OSHA guidelines and the guidance within NFPA 70E is essential in a world where electrical infrastructure and technology is constantly changing. Along these lines, the Association says they are seeing more and more Fortune 500 businesses turning to their resources for NFPA 70E training—a trend which falls in line with the skilled labor and investment in safety elements emphasized in the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem.

It would be hard to finish this article without mentioning NFPA 241, Standard for Safeguarding Construction, Alteration, and Demolition Operations, which provides minimum safeguards for construction, alteration, and demolition operations in order to protect people and property, thus safeguarding construction workers and others on construction sites from fire.

Building under construction fires have become commonplace in recent years. In fact, NFPA research shows that fire departments across the nation respond to an average of 3,840 fires in structures under construction and 2,580 fires in buildings undergoing renovations each year. Building under construction fires cost an estimated $304 million in property damage annually while fires in structures undergoing major renovations incur a $104 million price tag. NFPA 241 goes a long way in reducing risk so that buildings can be successfully completed, demolished, or altered and men and women in the trades can go home safely to their loved ones.

These are just a few of the codes and standards that NFPA has developed during its first 125 years to ensure that workers are protected on the job but there are more than 325-plus codes and standards available today—all with one common denominator: safety.

Today’s workers not only rely on the codes and standards that are core to NFPA, they also want research, data, training, policy guidance, content, and resources that help to connect the dots on safety. Today’s professionals and practitioners no longer want to carry around a big code book, they want both online and offline access to standards and relevant insights.

NFPA has now transitioned from being a code book publisher to a digital solutions provider. The centerpiece of this transformation is NFPA LiNK which was launched a year ago. LiNK features all current versions of NFPA documents, as well as enhanced content with search, notes, sharing, and situational context.

It is easy to see that NFPA has been revolutionizing workplace safety for 125 years and will continue to do so for years to come.

For a more in depth look at the history of NFPA, take a look at their brand new 3D art which allows you to dial in on key moments in NFPA history and learn more


About the Author

Sydny Shepard is the former editor of Occupational Health & Safety.

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