The history of workplace health & safety

Written by georgia alton
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Workplace safety and health slowly became issues as the United States rapidly industrialised. Unions and reformers first promoted the need for safer working conditions. Workers had few options if they became injured or ill on the job until state governments created regulations for industries like coal mining and manufacturing. Many viewed the system of state laws that protected workers as imperfect, and Congress stepped in to regulate workplace safety at the beginning of the 1970s.

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Workplace Safety and Health in the Late 19th Century

Concern over workers' safety and health on the job arose in the late 1900s as the United States became an industrial power. The increasing use of heavy machinery in areas like mining, railroad freight and manufacturing resulted in accidents that crippled or even killed workers. Workers and their families during the late 1800s had little recourse except to sue employers who could afford more talented lawyers. States took tentative steps toward regulating industries like coal mining and manufacturing as early as 1869, but not until the early 1900s did the actions of states force industries to reduce the possibility of work-related accidents or illness.

Progressive Era Reforms

During the Progressive Era in U.S. history (roughly 1900-1920), a coalition of journalists, businessmen, unions and politicians used the power of the government to mitigate the worst effects of rapid industrialisation. In 1911 New York's Triangle Shirtwaist Co. caught fire, and 146 of 300 employees died. Managers had locked the exit doors, claiming employees would steal from the company and could be permitted to leave only under supervision. The tragedy became a rallying point for reformers.

The Rise of Workers' Compensation

States responded by passing workers' compensation laws. In 1910 New York was the first state to pass a workers' compensation law, which forced companies to make restitution to workers or their families according to established rates. The rest of the states followed New York's lead during the next decade. When companies became subject to workers' compensation laws, they had a financial incentive to encourage safer working practices and environments.

The Intervention of the Federal Government

While the state workers' compensation and other regulatory laws helped decrease the incidence of accidents, they did not cover all of the potential workplace hazards. So Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHAct). The OSHAct created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) within the Department of Labor, making the safety and health of private-sector workplaces the purview of the federal government. OSHA established safety standards, researched workplace hazards and educated workers about their rights.

OSHA Controversy

Since its inception, OSHA has inspired controversy along political lines. Politically liberal critics assert OSHA takes too long to act on new information requiring a revision of safety standards and poorly enforces the standards it has enacted. Political conservatives argue OSHA is overly cautious, imposing costly and unnecessary regulations on industry. As a result, politicians on both sides of the aisle have repeatedly called for the reform of OSHA.

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