A History of Workplace Health and Safety – Part 3

General awareness of the need for better workplace safety continued to grow in the early years of the 20th century, as reformers, journalists and artists began to expose industry’s shortcomings. Upton Sinclair’s seminal novel The Jungle, for instance, laid bare the horrific working conditions within Chicago’s turn-of-the-century stockyards and slaughterhouses.

The first significant U.S. reforms came in the railroad sector with the passing of the Safety Appliance Act of 1893. It was designed to protect workers performing such traditionally dangerous tasks as coupling and decoupling railroad cars. Industrialists began to consider the benefits of ensuring their workers’ safety, including improved production and increased profits.

At the same time, governments began making the cost of ignoring worker safety increasingly onerous. Liability and compensation legislation was toughened up, forcing employers to pay attention to the plight of workers. Firms began placing protective guarding around machines and mandating the use of helmets, gloves and other personal protective equipment. The National Safety Council was established in the U.S. in 1913.

Such measures, along with the rise of worker unions throughout the 20th century, gradually had the effect of creating safer workplaces. In the U.S. manufacturing sector, for instance, the rate of disabling injuries per million hours worked fell from 24.2 in 1926 to 14.7 in 1950. By 1961 it had dropped to 11.8. (Source: Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970)

In 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed in the U.S., establishing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which to this day is mandated to ensure the health and safety of the nation’s workforce. Similar organizations have been set up in other industrialized countries, including Health and Safety Executives (HSEs) in Great Britain and the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.

During this time, companies also began to utilize the concept of an occupational health and safety program – a detailed plan of action specific to an individual employer designed to prevent workplace injuries and diseases in the workplace. These comprehensive documents cover such items as correct work procedures, employee orientation and training, workplace inspections, how to report incidents or accidents, and emergency procedures. In most countries today, companies are mandated by law to have these plans in place.

Traditionally paper-based, OH&S programs evolved during the 1980s with the advent of networked personal computers and electronic record-keeping, and even more significantly in recent years with the advent of the Internet and cloud-based health and safety software. It is this kind of tool that is providing organizations with the types of robust data and actionable insights that were never thought possible in previous eras. With the help of such applications, companies can now anticipate incidents and prevent them from happening, rather than simply reacting after an injury or death has already occurred.

Health and Safety software, quite simply, represents the latest and potentially most significant development in the centuries-long effort to better protect those who carry out society’s everyday work.

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