September 30, 2023

Progress of the Safety Movement in America

By Dan Corcoran, PhD, CIH, CSP

With June being National Safety Month, it seems fitting to look back on where we have come as a nation with respect to improving safety and health in the workplace. In the past century, we have learned from a number of tragedies and difficulties faced by the American worker and have enhanced our ability to identify and correct hazards through engineering and technology.

Regulatory bodies such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have also played a part, as have other organizations committed to safety and health in America such as the National Safety Council.

Unfortunately, the early years of the safety movement in America were tied to tragic events. Some of the early tragedies that inspired action included a large number of individuals who worked in mines and tunneling projects who contracted the often fatal disease known as silicosis. This illness is the result of inhaling dust containing crystalline silica. Other common occupational illnesses that had devastating effects included “black lung,” which was experienced by coal miners and “brown lung,” by cotton workers. Airborne lead and asbestos exposure significantly impacted the health of workers. Fires also occurred in buildings with locked exits, resulting in multiple fatalities. Debilitating injuries and illnesses in the workplace were common.

In the early years, workers did not have much in the way of protection and machinery was rarely safeguarded. Fall protection at construction sites was unheard of, even as large bridges and skyscrapers were being built, I It was not uncommon for business owners to estimate the number of fatalities they would expect from a given project due to falls. People who were injured at work also had very little recourse for being compensated for injuries and their work prospects following the incident were slim. A workplace injury could leave a family destitute.

Fast forward to 2016 and we see a much better picture. Over the past century, we have seen the development of workers’ compensation laws and advances in regulation, engineering and technology have significantly limited the hazards faced by the American worker.

With the implementation of excavation safety measures, fall protection,  industrial ventilation, machine guarding, personal protective equipment  and many other hazard control systems, we continue to see decreases in workplace fatality and injury rates. OSHA has also played a major role in promulgating regulations to control many of the aforementioned hazards. Many illnesses caused by airborne contaminants have been essentially eradicated and deaths due to falls, although they still occur too often, have been significantly minimized.

Certainly the job is not done and we continue to need highly trained occupational safety and health professionals in the workplace. In addition to traditional hazards, technology has introduced new challenges for the occupational safety and health professional. Some of these challenges include hazards related to robotics, new highly hazardous substances, nano-technology and hazards tied to biological research. However, unlike a century ago, occupational safety and health is now integrated into how we do business in America and is a key to our future success.

Educational opportunities in the field of OSH are very important for keeping the progress going as we continue to deal with new and existing hazards in the workplace.