National Safety Month: The History of Industrial Safety in North America

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National Safety Month: The History of Industrial Safety in North America

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Upton Sinclair wrote his muckraking classic “The Jungle,” in the early 1900s, exposing the unsanitary conditions of Chicago’s meatpacking industry and describing in graphic detail the deprioritization of worker safety and resulting tragedy. Fortunately, the sea change in workers’ safety Sinclair and countless others initiated has engendered an industrial landscape that bears virtually no resemblance to the picture “The Jungle” painted in 1906.

In celebration of continuous dedication to safety, and because June is National Safety Month, we at Staff Management | SMX thought it would be informative to examine the history of industrial safety in the United States and Canada. It’s important to remember, insights gathered looking back over more than a century of development and innovation provide a strong basis to look at the future of safety in North American manufacturing, distribution and fulfillment.

While modern factory and warehouse floors are dynamic environments, in which rapidly advancing technology plays an ever-greater role, the gravest safety risks remain easily understood. The National Safety Council has divided this year’s national safety month weekly, to focus on four leading workplace injury and fatality issues: emergency preparedness, wellness, falls and driving. We cover these four topics first, but also proper use of electrical machinery and following tagout/lockout protocols, which constitute areas of serious industrial safety concern.

  1. Emergency preparedness means thinking proactively about disasters that can affect you and your workers. To optimize safety in your operations, our experts have developed a general safety plan that deals with typical industrial safety concerns. Knowing about the natural disasters your facility’s location is prone to experience and training your workers in first aid and CPR are also steps you can take toward solid emergency preparedness.
  2. Wellness is a broad category including anything that can be done to improve and maintain physical health, like ensuring your workers are able to get enough sleep to be safely productive in the workplace.
  3. Avoiding the incidence of falls by establishing and enforcing safety protocols necessary for workers dealing with clutter, spills or working at height is the job of everyone in the manufacturing, distribution and fulfillment industries.
  4. Widespread cellphone usage has introduced a new complication with regard to driving safety, even in working environments where forklifts are operated. Driving safety is further complicated by more traditional difficulties, such as the fact that people continue to drive or operate machinery while intoxicated, overly tired or simply without the proper training, attention and care.

Finally, electricity and the machines it powers have been a mainstay of the manufacturing world for over 100 years, and electrical safety when using these machines remains as important as any other safety concern industry faces today. A common source of injury and death related to electric machinery is the unintentional or mistaken activation of machinery being cleaned or repaired. The system developed to protect against accidents of this kind is known as lockout-tagout, according to which a lock or tag is prominently placed on the isolation point of a given machine. Isolation of the machine ensures it cannot be mistakenly activated during maintenance, and the lock or tag functions as a physical barrier and warning to anyone who would make such a mistake.

Safety in Early Industry

Economic historian Arnold Toynbee popularized the term Industrial Revolution in description of economic development in Britain during the latter half of the eighteenth century. This early industrial activity focused on iron, coal and textile production, but little thought was given to the safety of workers, who were often crowded into cramped spaces kept packed with hot, loud and dangerous machinery. Men, women and children endured a pace of work set to match these machines for 10 or 12 hours per day, earning significantly less than wages considered sufficient for even a modest lifestyle of the time.

In one of the earliest attempts to temper industrial output with safety, state legislators passed the  Massachusetts Factory Act of 1877, the first health and safety law in America. Over the next 13 years, nine more states passed similar laws, which mandated such simple requirements as fire exits and covers to protect machine operators from moving parts. In 1893, the first federal safety law directing employers to provide workplace safety equipment unfortunately only applied to the railroads, and safety laws would remain unchanged in much of the country for the next 77 years. In 1913, when the National Safety Council was chartered in Chicago, it was estimated between 18 and 21,000 industrial workers had died in factories in the United States during the previous year alone.

The province of Ontario enacted the first Canadian health and safety law with the Factory Act of 1884. More a collection of vague recommendations than enforceable standards limiting the kind of work women and children should do and for how long, the law was still popular among employers, who appreciated that it didn’t significantly constrain production. Canadian law was not amended until nearly 100 years later, after five Italian immigrant workers had been buried alive while performing maintenance deep underground in Hogg’s Hollow, Toronto.

U.S. industry had been forced to act earlier than its Canadian equivalent, largely due to popular outrage over the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. On the afternoon of March 25, 1911, 146 workers, some as young as 14, died when a scrap cloth bin was accidentally set ablaze in a garment factory taking up the eighth, ninth and tenth floors of a building in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. The public spectacle created by young women jumping to their deaths, because of locked fire exits, resulted in formation of the Committee on Public Safety in New York City as well as the recently renamed American Society of Safety Professionals. As of 2018, this society brings together more than 37,000 occupational safety and health professionals globally, and focuses on safety concerns in all industries, consulting with companies, advising governments and educating workers.

The Benefits of Industrial Safety Regulation and Oversight

The Occupational Safety and Health Act signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1970, established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). However, the main thrust of the law was to protect workers from the effects of unsanitary, excessively loud and chemically toxic working conditions also subject to extreme shifts in temperature. OSHA’s main responsibility is to, “assure safe and healthy working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.” In Canada, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), established in 1978 by a parliamentary act of the same name, has generally the same focus.

While criticism of government oversight of industry remains relatively common, a 2012 study found random inspections conducted by OSHA resulted in a decline of 9 percent in the rate of workplace injuries, which translated to a savings of 26 percent on injury-related costs. The same study also revealed no indication such improvements in safety cost jobs, decreased sales, negatively affected credit, or forced companies into bankruptcy.

For example, in 1993, a company in Alabama that requested assistance from OSHA initially reported worker compensation premiums of $162,000 and that 20 percent of their labor force had endured an injury requiring at least one day of work be missed. OSHA was able to consult with this company to create a comprehensive safety program that five years later resulted in premiums of only $28,000 and a worker injury rate of one in 67, demonstrating there is no reason why companies can’t improve safety while meeting productivity goals to drive profitability.

Ultimately, in the 30 years that followed OSHA’s establishment, workplace deaths dropped by half, while the chance of becoming hurt or ill on the job declined by 40 percent. Simultaneously, the size of U.S. industry exploded from 3.5 million worksites employing 56 million workers to 6.9 million worksites with 105 million workers. In Canada, the CCOHS continues to promote safe workplaces and champion the physical and mental wellbeing of working Canadians by making information, training and education available to workers and companies alike.

In conclusion, the National Safety Council has chosen emergency preparedness, wellness, falls and driving this year’s National Safety Month key topics. It is important to remember that preventing workplace accidents in North America’s manufacturing, distribution and fulfillment facilities is everyone’s responsibility. If history has taught us anything, it’s that we all have the capacity to do a better, safer job, and why not? Those who stand to benefit are only every last one of us.

Now that you’ve read about the history and development of safety in North America, utilize a safety scorecard to improve workplace safety at your facility.

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