The Long Road to Now: The Evolution of Safe Work

The Long Road to Now: The Evolution of Safe Work

OH&S takes a look at the most important events that have helped to evolve occupational health and safety since the inception of the publication. 

Relating health issues to occupations and their environments goes back further than you think it does. In fact, the first known instance of correlation between health and work was in fourth century BC when Hippocrates noted lead toxicity in workers of the mining industry. Since then, there has been a long road of scientists, physicians and researchers who have spent time analyzing work environments and the impact they have on a human’s health and wellness.

As a celebration of Occupational Health & Safety’s 90th anniversary, a milestone discussed on page X of this issue, we will be dedicating an article in each issue of 2022 to take a historic look back on some of the most important safety and health topics. To kick off our anniversary coverage, we will be taking a look at the events that have helped to form the safety industry as we know it now. As sometimes the most important lessons are learned from history.

Creating the Roadmap

It’s hard to imagine a time when air conditioning, PPE and OSHA didn’t exist but at the turn of the 19th century, workers were battling harsh conditions in workplaces throughout the world. There had been some movement to recognize and heal workers who had fallen ill due to occupational exposures, but little had been done in the way of prevention.

One of the first industries to begin to see federal regulation was the mining industry which passed the first mine safety statute in 1891. The statute, however, only applied to coal mines and did little to protect workers as it only established minimum requirements for ventilation and prohibited operators from hiring children under the age of 12.

The late 1800s saw some actions that hinted towards change for the better. For example, the first recorded call by a labor organization for a U.S. occupational safety and health law is heard in 1867 and in 1896 the National Fire Protection Association was founded to prevent fires and write fire safety codes and standards. Overseas, Great Britain passed a workmen’s compensation act for occupational injuries in 1897—something that would take until 1916 to pass in the United States.

The first 15 years of the 1900’s proved to be a flurry of events that helped to develop a more concrete pillar for occupational health and safety to stand on. Associations like the American Society of Safety Professionals and the National Safety Council were formed and quickly went to work to create, standardize and promote safer working practices in prominent industries.

In 1914, the U.S. Public Health Service established the Office of Industrial Hygiene and Sanitization, which held the primary function of researching worker health and wellness, this office would later come to be the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in 1971. Another prominent association to be founded in the early 1900s was the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which was first founded as the American Standards Association and was responsible for the development of many voluntary safety standards, some of which are still referenced in laws today.

Laying Down the Groundwork

As we all know, the formation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration did not happen until after the OSH Act of 1970, however many events in history paved the way for a more comprehensive look at worker safety and working conditions. Here’s an overview at some of the historic events that preceded the creation of OSHA.

Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire. In 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City. The fire led to the death of 146 workers (out of the 500 people employed at the company), and is known as one of the worst work-related disasters in U.S. history. The tragic result of the fire was attributed to locked doors that trapped workers inside the facility without any means for escape. The building also lacked fire escapes and proper fire exit protocols. Due to the sheer magnitude of fire’s destruction, the public outcry was deafening. This tragic event is said to have gotten the ball rolling on future safety and health regulations.

Production for World War I. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, war production became a national necessity with American factory employees working hard to produce wartime needs for their country. The Department of Labor had been loosely constructed in 1913, and after four years the department turned its eyes to war labor programs. The department did a brief survey of conditions and recommended the following key elements of a national war labor policy: elimination of war profiteering, recognition of the right of workers to bargain collectively, establishment of machinery to adjust grievances and the sanctioning of the 8-hour day with overtime pay for any time worked beyond eight hours. This program, which would come to be called the War Labor Administration gained popularity with then-president Woodrow Wilson and support from organized labor.

The New Deal & Francis Perkins. Appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the Secretary of Labor, Francis Perkins was the first women to serve as a cabinet secretary. Her efforts and involvement in FDR’s New Deal laws made her an instrumental part of advocating for industrial safety and workers’ rights. In 1933, Perkins outlined the policy priorities she would pursue: a 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, unemployment compensation, worker’s compensation, abolition of child labor, direct federal aid to the states for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized federal employment service and universal health insurance. In 1938, Congress would go on to enact the Fair Labor Standards Act which established a minimum wage and maximum work hour as well as banned child labor. By the time she left office, she’d accomplished all but one of the items she’d set out to prioritize: universal access to health care.

Uptick in Worker Fatalities. In the 1960’s, economic expansion led to an increase in worker fatalities and injuries with as many as 14,000 workers dying each year and 2.2 million out of work due to injury or illness. This began to put pressure on the federal government to establish an administration and policy to protect workers from workplace-related injury, illness and death.

From Gravel to Concrete

In 1971, the Department of Labor established the Occupational Safety and Health Act which required the Secretary of Labor to set and enforce safety and health standards for almost all of the nation's workplaces. This was no easy feat, however. The OSH Act was one of the most controversial programs in the Department’s history.

The controversy started before the OSH Act was ever signed into law. When the OSH Act was under formation, Congress debated who would have the responsibility to enforce the standards put forth under the Act. There were two sides: those who wanted the DOL to do the enforcing and those who wanted a third-party agency to step in. A compromise was ultimately reached, giving the Department of Labor the responsibility of enforcement, thus the creation of OSHA.

After the OSH Act was signed into law, controversy continued. Early on, inspectors were called “nitpickers,” and the cost of compliance rose considerably as standards were developed. Due to this, the agency’s program was reevaluated and health scientists brought forth the solution to concentrate on more serious workplace problems for the time being. The first OSHA standards issue were for asbestos, lead, carcinogens and cotton dust.

In the 1980’s, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in a landmark decision that workers could, for the first time ever, have the right to refuse to do unsafe tasks. OSHA also issued a standard that gave workers the right to know what chemicals they were working with and how it could impact their health. This standard also required employers to provide medical and exposure records for employees. In addition to the standard on chemicals, new standards on safety testing and certification of workplace equipment, and important worker protections for combustible grain dust, trenching, noise and hazardous energy were issued.

For the next three decades, OSHA would go on to issue standards to protect workers from bloodborne pathogens, toxic substances, hazards associated with confined spaces and laboratories. Significant events like the attacks on September 11, 2001 and the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill lead to stronger protections against the exposure to hexavalent chromium and hazards associated with cleanup efforts.

As recently as 2020, OSHA has been working on issuing new rules associated with real-world events and tragedies, such as the Covid-19 pandemic. The agency will also move in 2022 to issue a new standard on heat stress for workers as a result of the record-busting heat waves that have rolled over the country in the last five years.

Smoothing the Bumps in the Road

While OSHA looks to celebrate 50-plus years of workplace health and safety standards, there is still much to be done. Despite the fact that OSHA continues to created new standards, there have been many calls in the industry to look back to some of the earliest-made standards to evolve them as work, technology and facilities have advanced over the past half-century. Many argue that it is easy to get confused or lost in many of the standards’ vague and often outdated information, however revisions could take years to be proposed, agreed upon and published.

The agency has issued many letters of interpretation and proposed revisions for standards over the years, something that will most likely not stop in the coming years as new hazards are presented, technology advances and the work that employees do progresses with time. The occupational health and safety industry doesn’t look at all how it did in the 1800’s and the industry, with your help, will continue to move forward with a brighter outlook for worker health and safety.

This article originally appeared in the February 1, 2022 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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