A History of Workplace Health and Safety – Part 1

Human societies have endeavored to ensure the health and safety of their workers for centuries. Doctors in ancient Greece raised concerns over lead and other dangerous materials to which miners were routinely exposed. Later, the Roman senator Pliny the Elder alerted citizens to the dangers of sulfur and zinc. He recommended miners cover their mouths and noses with animal bladders – one of the first examples of industrial respiratory protection.

In the 15th Century, Austrian physician Ulrich Ellenbog published a treatise on the dangers that mercury and asbestos posed to laborers and the correlation of these and other metals with lung disease.

About 1700, Italian physician Bernardo Ramazzini – today known as the Father of Occupational Medicine – published his findings on the topic of occupational disease. He famously urged other doctors to ask their patients “What is your trade?”, drawing a definite link between the typical conditions of some occupations with known afflictions.

Although the conclusions drawn by these early scions of occupational health and safety are today common knowledge, they were indeed revolutionary when first advanced. Appreciation of the need for workplace safety, and development of methods to improve the conditions in which work was carried out, grew – but slowly.

Meanwhile, rapid advancements in technology during the 18th and 19th centuries transformed British society from a largely agrarian-based one to an industrial one. Inventions such as the spinning jenny – an improvement on the spinning wheel – and flying shuttle – an advancement on looms – revolutionized the manufacture of textiles. It was in this industry that factories were first used to generate output.

James Watt’s improvements to the previously invented steam engine in 1769 eventually led to new machinery being developed that could do work at staggeringly faster speeds than could people. Steam had a monumental impact on myriad industries that had for centuries relied exclusively on handwork and human effort, including lumber, textiles and transportation. Factories appeared in rapidly expanding urban areas as farm-dwellers flocked to cities in search of a new type of employment that was supplanting those in agriculture.

Developments in the production of steel further spurred the shift from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. The so-called Bessemer Process allowed firms to produce steel in large quantities, allowing thousands of products to either be invented or strengthened. This in turn led to more factories appearing on the landscapes of Britain, the U.S. and other industrialized countries such as Germany, France and Canada.

Collectively, these developments came to be known as the Industrial Revolution.

Next: Health and Safety in the Industrial Revolution

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