3 Turning points in the history of workplace safety

Author: BLR

The evolution of workplace safety

Imagine being perched on a narrow beam of a bridge, soaring over 200 feet above the ground. There are no safety harnesses or nets to catch you if you make a misstep; one wrong move could mean instant death. Looking at your fellow construction crew members, you realize that statistically, not all of you will survive to witness the completion of this project This was the norm just a few generations ago before the Golden Gate Bridge was constructed. Back then, workplace safety practices were virtually nonexistent.

The next time your workers voice their complaints about the abundance of rules or the need to go through yet another equipment clearance, ask them to consider whether they’d prefer to go back to the “old days” when safety wasn’t considered a priority. Reflecting on these three crucial turning points in the history of workplace safety might make them think twice.

Massachusetts passes the first safety and health law

The birth of the Industrial Revolution brought about perilous working conditions in numerous factories, with employers displaying a sluggish response in addressing worker’s concerns. However, in 1877, Massachusetts legislators took the lead by approving the nation’s first safety and health legislation. This groundbreaking law mandated safety precautions, such as the installation of guards for belts, shafts, and gears, as well as adequate fire exits—precautions that we now often take for granted.

By 1890, as many as nine states had implemented regular factory inspections, with others likewise adopting requirements to safeguard workers from hazardous equipment. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 1911 that significant strides were made in protecting workers nationwide. This pivotal year witnessed the enactment of the first U.S. workers’ compensation laws. In response to the devastating realization that 18,000 to 21,000 workers had lost their lives from workplace injuries in 1912, the National Council for Industrial Safety was established. This council aimed to gather data and instigate programs focused on accident prevention. Before these developments, there was no official documentation of workplace injuries, making the loss of so many lives even more shocking. Presently, the collection of data on illnesses and injuries remains a vital facet of the federal government’s workplace safety prevention program.

Employers recognize the dangers of chemicals in the workplace

Before the turn of the century, workers often endured painful and debilitating conditions when working with various chemicals. At that time, little was known about the dangers posed by these chemicals. However, the U.S. Bureau of Labor began shedding light on these dangers by publishing graphic case studies of fatalities and injuries related to certain trades. One of the most notorious chemical culprits was white phosphorus, which was used in match production. Prolonged exposure to white phosphorus resulted in the rotting of workers’ jaws, a condition known as phosphorus necrosis, or “phossy jaw.” If left untreated, this disease eventually led to organ damage to vital organs and proved fatal.

In 1910, a study conducted by the Bureau of Labor on this condition prompted the industry to devise a safer method for making matches that eliminated this hazard. Alongside white phosphorous, hazardous chemical exposure has resulted in other serious illnesses throughout history, such as lead poisoning; coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease; and, more recently, asbestosis and mesothelioma.

After WWII, the Manufacturers Chemical Association started publishing chemical safety data sheets, while the U.S. Department of Labor produced a series of profiles on hazardous chemicals. In the 1960s, the modern material safety data sheet (MSDS) was developed and first used in maritime safety regulations. By 1987, all employers were required to provide information regarding the chemicals used in the workplace.

Engineers require strict safety regulations during golden gate bridge construction

In the 1930s, when the construction of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge was underway, it was commonplace for the industry to accept one fatality for every million dollars invested in a project. However, Chief Project Engineer Joseph Strauss refused to accept this status quo. Determined to prioritize safety, he commissioned a rope-and-mesh safety net beneath the bridge’s roadway structure. This innovative net proved crucial in saving the lives of 19 workers, who became known as members of the “Halfway-to-Hell Club,” as documented by the Golden Gate Highway & Transportation District. Additionally, Strauss enforced strict safety measures, including the mandatory use of hard hats, safety lines, and respirators during riveting to prevent workers from inhaling lead-contaminated fumes. Failure to comply with these practices resulted in potential dismissal. Despite these precautions, 11 lives were lost during the project, with 100 deaths occurring after a scaffold section fell through the safety net. However, it’s important to note that without the net and other stringent safety requirements, the number of fatalities would have been significantly higher.

This historical example highlights the crucial starting point of any successful safety program: acknowledging that the existing standards are insufficient to adequately protect workers. It involves thoroughly documenting safety concerns, collaborating with regulatory bodies to establish appropriate standards, and educating employees to ensure they possess the knowledge and understanding needed to keep themselves safe.