Workplace safety: evolution and revolution

June 30, 2023
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Our tribute to National Safety Awareness Month 2023 may come to an end, but our commitment to workplace safety does not. Together with Safety Manager David Reyna, we remain ever vigilant and forward focused. But before looking ahead, let’s look back over the history of safety on the job

Since the dawn of mankind, workers have toiled on job sites in the field. And along that laborious trek, the value placed on a worker’s life has changed dramatically. The great pyramids of ancient Egypt are a good place to start. Erected to house the Egyptian pharaohs in a comfortable afterlife, their construction proved a much harsher reality for the commoners who built them. As workers fell by the wayside — crushed by limestone blocks or overcome by heat and exertion — reinforcements (who were paid in rations of beer and bread) stepped in to replace them. Life was cheap, and labor was cheaper. Whether constructing ramps or hauling stone, a pyramid construction worker’s life expectancy was significantly shorter than their present-day counterpart.

As workers (who were paid in rations of beer and bread) fell by the wayside, reinforcements replaced them. Life was cheap, and labor was cheaper.

Disregard for workers’ health and safety continued through the Middle Ages and the Industrial Revolution. Then, safety was considered a worker’s responsibility: by accepting employment, the worker assumed the associated risks. In the early twentieth century, workers’ compensation laws finally named industry liable for injuries to workers and prompted the development of accident prevention programs.

Despite that step forward, industrial accidents continued to take a heavy toll across America. In 1902–1903, during construction of the first subway in New York City, first a dynamite explosion and later a cave-in killed and injured over 100 workers. And injudicious design review contributed to the loss of over 3,000 lives in the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. The original design called for 64 lifeboats but was dismissed as over-cautious, as the ship was deemed “practically unsinkable,” and the Titanic launched with only 20. Tragically, greater caution could have saved hundreds of lives. 

At the time, a dozen casualties on the $35 million Golden Gate project was roughly one-third the national average.

The 1930s was an era of monumental projects, some considered wonders of the modern world, just as the pyramids were among the wonders of the ancient world. Workplace deaths, however, were still commonplace. During the 1931–1935 construction of the Hoover Dam, nearly 100 people perished. And in 1937, near completion of the Golden Gate Bridge, a platform collapsed and 10 workers plunged to their death. Yet construction of the bridge represented safety progress. At the time, a dozen casualties on the $35 million Golden Gate project was roughly one-third the national average. Also, for the first time on a major bridge construction project, safety helmets and nets were required. And the safety net — strung end-to-end — did save the lives of 19 workers, who dubbed themselves the “Halfway-to-Hell Club.” 

Ten years later, the U.S. suffered the worst industrial accident in its history. In April 1947, a freighter loaded with ammonium nitrate fertilizer was docked in Texas City, Texas. A slow-burning fire (allegedly caused by a discarded cigarette) ignited the cargo, causing an explosion that killed hundreds and injured thousands, both on land and water. It blew up two other ships; destroyed about 1,000 homes and businesses; and blasted two small airplanes out of the sky. But some good came from this workplace catastrophe: State and national disaster-preparedness and disaster-relief plans were developed as a direct result.

In the post-World War II era of economic expansion, laws or regulations pertaining to occupational safety addressed fair labor, workers’ compensation, child labor, and coal mining. Once a particularly hazardous occupation, the coal mining industry presents an interesting study of workplace safety — with a humane twist. Once, caged canaries accompanied coal miners belowground as a safety precaution. A canary’s fragile constitution is susceptible to low oxygen levels, so a miner kept the canary in sight. If the bird died, the miner headed above ground. In 1815, Sir Humphry Davy invented the miner’s safety lamp, thus sparing the canary. The lamp’s flame served the same purpose as the canary’s cautionary lungs: different flames indicated different hazardous conditions. Today, miners and other field workers (e.g., hazardous waste operations and emergency response personnel) use sophisticated devices that continually monitor air quality and emit unmistakable alarms in dangerous conditions.

Still, workplace deaths were expected as a fact of life. Up to the 1950s, worker fatalities were factored into cost and schedule planning on large construction projects. But by the second half of the twentieth century, workplace deaths were no longer acceptable. From a humanitarian standpoint, companies didn’t want to see anyone get hurt. From a practical standpoint, their business suffered when they lost valuable human resources. Workers, owners, and operators alike recognized (and still do) that a safe workplace is a productive and desirable workplace. This awareness, both personal and practical, heightened the growing emphasis on safety.

During the 1960s, several health and safety related acts were passed. These pertained to public and service contracts, mining, and construction. But more comprehensive coverage was needed. In 1970, President Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act. At the time, Congress declared that the purpose of this legislation was “to assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions and to preserve our human resources.” Concurrently, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was created for standards promulgation and enforcement. However, industry was expected to be the “doer” — the entity ultimately responsible for making accident prevention a reality.

Working safely is not an option: it’s a requirement. It is also a privilege.

And that responsibility still stands, from this day on. In our organization, working safely is not an option: it’s a requirement. It is also a privilege, as David Reyna sees it: “I love my job and keeping people safe. If I can save someone from experiencing a loss or injury, then I feel I’ve made a difference. Injuries are not acceptable, and no one should ever accept anything less.” We wholeheartedly embrace David’s sentiment, and we work tirelessly to create a brighter, safer future.