5 Events that Changed Workplace Health and Safety Movement

May 20, 2022 7 min read

Safety and health procedures continue to improve now and then, with fatality, injury, and illness cases reducing gradually and steadily. Thanks to the strict imposition of workplace health and safety standards, injuries and accidents are prevented, employees are protected, and companies are preserved. But the question is, how did it all begin?

200 years ago, workers would have to work 200 feet high with no harness for security and nothing to catch if they fall. A lot of companies employed children wherein they would have to climb under machineries often resulting in loss of limbs and decapitating. Poisonous and flammable gasses were never seen as dangerous. Workers would have to work 14 hours a day, six times a week. These may sound barbaric, but these were the working conditions generations ago which led to countless accidents, diseases and deaths.

While people spend quite a lot of time on current workplace safety trends, most tend to disregard the importance of looking back at how it all improved throughout the years. Understanding the present and future of workplace health and safety requires understanding its roots.

To have a more purposeful approach toward safety and health procedures, we will explore some important turning events that helped shape them, from initial frameworks into a body of law that protects employees and employers around the world.

What are some events that affected workplace safety?

Workplace tragedies accelerated the steps of the safety and health movement in the United States. These tragedies could have been prevented had safety and health measures been implemented. Unfortunately, protocols weren't fully established yet and imposed at that time. Here are some significant tragedies that had a lasting impact on the health and safety movement. Every single one of these tragedies led to substantial changes in how people view safety and health.

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Photo From: Jim Frederick article on How The Triangle Fire Transformed  Workplace Safety (March 25, 2021)

The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire is perhaps the most tragic event in workplace health and safety history. It killed 146 workers and injured another 150 workers. A lot of factors contributed to the number of deaths. 
For one, the building had only one fire escape, and it collapsed during the rescue effort. Victims were further trapped because of long tables and bulky machines,  and to make matters worse, management closed doors to avoid theft, and some doors were opened the wrong way. Another contributing factor was that there were only a few buckets of water on hand at that time to douse the flames. Some victims could have been rescued, but firefighters' ladders were too short to reach the top floors, and their ineffective safety nets ripped easily.

More than 350,000 citizens joined in the funeral procession for the Triangle victims. Even after the funeral, activists kept their memory alive by appealing to the local and state government to take action about the buildings’ and workers’ safety and health. Three months passed, John Alden Dix, then the governor of New York, signed an act empowering the Factory Investigating Committee, resulting in 8 more laws encompassing fire safety, factory inspection, and sanitation and employment policies for women and children. A year after, legislators in New York State enacted another 25 laws that reshaped labor protections. Many of these laws were turned into federal law during the New Deal. 

This century of reforms instigated mostly by the Triangle Fire makes up the core Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), which was created in 1970, decades after the tragedy. Applying to most private sectors, in addition to some in public sectors, OSHA is designed to ensure that employees are protected from hazards that may compromise their safety and health.

Monongah Coal Mine Disaster

The worst mining disaster in U.S. happened on December 6, 1907 when a network of mines owned by the Fairmont Coal Company in Monongah West Virginia exploded. The tragedy killed a reported 362 coal miners (unofficial estimates exceeded 500 deaths). Started with an underground explosion in one area and followed by a larger blast in a separate section, the explosion collapsed the mine entrance and destroyed ventilation. Because of this, mine shaft was filled with poisonous gases suffocating, poisoning and killing the survivors of the initial blast

The Monongah disaster impelled public awareness and led to the passage of the 1910 Organic Act which officially created the United States Bureau of Mines (USBM). The bureau aimed to reduce the alarming high number of deaths in mining industry. Later on, its authority expanded to gathering, analysis, and dissemination of economic data in the mining industry.

Hawk's Nest Tragedy

Hawk's Nest Tragedy

Courtesy of Elkem Metals Collection, West Virginia State Archives

In 1930, Hawk's Nest Tunnel construction began on a three-mile tunnel through Gauley Mountain, West Virginia. Men drilled and blasted a 32-36 feet tunnel through dry drilling, which released large amounts of silica dust. A cloud of silica covered the tunnel's interior, resulting in impaired vision and clogged workers' lungs.
Despite the danger of the situation, the construction lasted for more than one year with no form of safety. Workers were confined to spaces with poor ventilation, no dust control, and limited use of personal breathing protection. Within months of breathing silica dust, workers showed signs of Silicosis, claiming at least 764 lives out of 5000 workers. Exposure to silica still caused death to some workers even after the construction was completed.
This tragedy resulted in a public outcry that led some companies to form the Air Hygiene Foundation. This foundation conducted research and developed standards for working in the dusty workplace. After a few years, the U.S. Department of Labor made Silicosis a compensable disease.

Bhopal Tragedy 

On December 3, 1984, a tragic accident happened in Bhopal, India, wherein over 40 tons of methyl isocyanate (MIC) and other lethal gasses, including Hydrogen Cyanide, claimed more than 3,000 lives. Not only that, but around 50,000 other people had also been exposed to the poisonous gas, and most suffered disability as a result. 

The impending disaster could have ceased had the protective equipment been in complete working order. Unfortunately, it was not. The refrigeration system, which was supposed to cool the storage tank, was shut down; the scrubbing, which was supposed to absorb the vapor, was not immediately accessible; and the flare, which was supposed to burn any vapor, was out of order. This shocking event paved the way for stricter safety legislation worldwide. 

In the United States, the tragedy led to the passage of the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) of 1986. This act was created to increase the public’s knowledge and access to information on hazardous and toxic chemicals, requiring industries to report on the storage, use, and release to the environment of their hazardous substances. With this information, local governments can prepare emergency plans to protect their community from possible risks.

Factory Fire in Bangladesh

A garment-factory fire in Bangladesh killed 112 employees in November 2012. Investigators suspected that an electrical short circuit spawned the blaze and spread quickly due to the volatile nature of the material used in the factory. The fire alarm went off properly during the accident, but the supervisors demanded workers to go back to their working areas and even blocked an exit door where the workers could have escaped. 
Fire inspectors found out later that the factory's fire extinguishers were not working and were only displayed to fool inspectors. The magnitude of the tragedy escalated when people found out that the factory produced garments for several major retail outlets in the United States. There was also evidence that those retailers knew of the unsafe conditions beforehand. This tragedy added pressure to U.S. companies dealing with offshore manufacturers to implement safety and health work practices.

Contribution of Organized Labor

Organized labor has fought for safer workplace conditions and appropriate compensation for workers, resulting in many earliest developments in the safety movement. One of the most significant contributions of organized labor was their fight to revoke anti-labor laws. This includes policies such as servant rule, the definition of contributory negligence, and the concept of assumption of risk. These hard-fought battles of organized labor brought deplorable working conditions to the general public and led to employer-biased laws being overturned.

Contribution of Specific Health Problems

Another factor that enforced the development of the modern safety and health movement is the rise of specific health problems.

Lung Diseases

Some of these particular health problems are lung diseases which were a significant problem for coal miners way back in the 1800s, including anthracosis. The illness persisted until 1875 when safety and health measures such as proper ventilation and reduced work hours were implemented. However, the disease reemerged in the 1930s, but the United States did not follow suit until 1969 when Congress finally passed the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. The Coal Act of 1969 regulates the operation of coal mines to protect the safety and health of people at coal mines and those who may be affected by coal mining operations. This was actually the most comprehensive safety and health act of its time.

Mercury Poisoning

Another health problem contributing to the health and evolution of the health and safety movement is mercury poisoning. This became an issue in the United States after studying New York City's hat-making industry in the early 1940s. The study found symptoms of mercury nitrate poisoning in the workers which led to the banning of the use of hazardous chemicals in the hat-making industry.

Asbestos-related Diseases

Another important factor affecting the health and safety movement is Asbestos-related diseases. Asbestos, which was once considered a miracle fiber in 1964, was found to be dangerous as it can cause cancer to the lungs, gastrointestinal tract, larynx, pharynx, kidneys, gallbladder, and bile ducts. Authorities later on regulated the use of asbestos and established standards for exposure. 

Conclusion

The workplace health and safety movement has indeed come a long way. The country has witnessed a lot of unimaginable workplace accidents and diseases in the past. A common denominator which bound these tragedies was the absolute disregard for workers' safety and health. Unlike 200 years ago, there was little to no protection for the workers, resulting in thousands of casualties.

Fortunately, today, there is a great deal of understanding of the importance of providing workplace health and safety. This results in continuous evaluation of safety and health problems, enhancement of accident prevention procedures, and more strict implementation of safety and health procedures.

Workplace health and safety has been an essential issue in the past, gaining attention until now, and it will continue to be a concern even in the future. It has evolved and will continue to evolve, and many employers, employees, and even safety researchers continue to value the safety movement.

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Herbert Post

Born in the Philadelphia area and raised in Houston by a family who was predominately employed in heavy manufacturing. Herb took a liking to factory processes and later safety compliance where he has spent the last 13 years facilitating best practices and teaching updated regulations. He is married with two children and a St Bernard named Jose. Herb is a self-described compliance geek. When he isn’t studying safety reports and regulatory interpretations he enjoys racquetball and watching his favorite football team, the Dallas Cowboys.


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