Health and Safety

Safety in the Workplace: How Did We Get to Where We Are Today?

November 4, 2013
By Penny Stern, MD, MPH, FACOEM, FACPM

Workplace safety isn’t a new idea — more than a century ago, the dangers at work were already well-recognized. Whether by tools or by machinery (or even by animals), injuries on the job were accepted as a routine risk faced by workers. Many industries, such as mining and manufacturing were especially known for the hazards they presented. Unfortunately, employers could often deny liability, claiming that an injured worker had only himself (or his/her fellows) to blame when catastrophe hit.

Between 1890 and 1894, for example, the fatality rate for American miners ranged from 2.5 to 3.2 deaths per thousand workers. Railroad workers faced fatality rates as high as 8.5 deaths per thousand workers.  Manufacturing was also dangerous, especially because of largely unguarded power sources. Until formal safety regulations were put into place in the US (beginning at the end of the 19th century), the situation remained bleak.

Clearly something had to be done. Thanks to the tireless efforts of labor unions and various reformers, safety became a more important concern across the spectrum of American workplace. The railroads led the way, seeking greater safety for their workers. In 1893, the very first Federal law designed to impact work safety was enacted as the Safety Appliance Act. Did you know that it wasn’t until the first few decades of the 20th century that workers’ compensation laws were enacted?  The importance of this was that now the cost of workers’ injuries would be felt more keenly by employers (who previously viewed accidents and their human consequences as relatively cheap, since very few workers injured received anything significant to compensate them, or their families.)

It became worthwhile for companies to looks for the dangers lurking in their workplaces. Many large concerns began to operate in-house groups dedicated to safety. These committees and departments included input from both workers and technical professionals. Unions continued to press for safer conditions and the protection of workers. Along with injuries, another important problem began to be recognized – occupational illness. Dr. Alice Hamilton, the first woman on the faculty of Harvard University, was one of the pioneers who looked at the consequences of occupational hazards. She investigated mercury poisoning in hatters and carbon monoxide poisoning in steelworkers, vibration injuries in jackhammer operators and the effects of lead and nitrous fumes on workers. Her findings were used to press politicians and industrialists to make the changes needed to protect workers.

In 1971, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was established to continue the effort to protect more than 130 million workers at over 7 million worksites. Through the issuing of OSHA standards (in areas such as Lockout/Tagout; Excavation and Trenching; Bloodborne Pathogens; Confined Space and many more), OSHA has helped make workplaces safer.  It’s been estimated that prior to the creation of OSHA, about 14,000 US workers were killed on the job in 1970. Compare that to the approximately 4,300 who died in 2009. Similarly, the drop in serious illnesses and injuries went from about 11 per 100 workers in 1972 to 3.6 per 100 in 2009. As impressive as these statistics are, the work must continue and OSHA is not alone.

Occupational and Environmental Medicine is a vibrant medical specialty dedicated to promoting workplace safety and preventing workplace injuries and illnesses. These physicians and allied health professionals champion the health and safety of workers with employers and government regulators. The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine was founded in 1916 and since then has been dedicated to the more than 130 million Americans in workplaces of all types, becoming the nation’s leading experts on the many factors that contribute to health and wellness in the workplace. Occupational Medicine specialists not only care for injured and ailing workers (both in the workplace and in specially-designated clinic settings, such as Occupational and Environmental Medicine of Long Island’s locations in Nassau and Suffolk counties) but contribute to research, the creation of clinical guidelines for medical care, and public health programming. We serve as key liaisons between employees, employers, the government and all elements of our evolving health care system.

Many new challenges are facing America as the workplace changes. The workforce is aging and chronic disease has become ever more present among workers younger and older. Safety remains a paramount concern and the risk of accidents, while reduced, never completely disappears. Investing in a safer and healthier workplace will result in a healthier, happier, and more productive workforce and represents a win-win for us all.

For more information or to make an appointment at Occupational and Environmental Medicine of Long Island (OEMLI), please call (631) 686-6390 or (516) 492-3297.  pstern1@nshs.edu

November 2, 2013

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