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Health & Safety: Then and Now

Written by Steve Hudgik

Harry McShane was 16 years old on June 29, 1908, when his left arm, caught in the belt of a machine, was ripped off at the shoulder. According to the boy's father, his employers, whom Harry had worked for since he was 14, offered no compensation either at the hospital or at home.

Today, more than 100 years later, an entirely different health and safety story can be told. The OSH Act, passed by Congress in 1970, "assures so far as possible every working man and woman in the nation safe and healthy working conditions and to preserve our human resources."

Early Health and Safety Beginnings

In 1877 Massachusetts became the first state to pass health and safety legislation requiring the guarding of belts, shafts and gears, protection on elevators and adequate fire exits in factories.

By 1890, nine states had factory inspectors, 13 states required machine guarding and 21 made limited provision for health and safety hazards. In 1903, the U.S. Bureau of Labor began publishing graphically detailed studies of occupational fatalities and illnesses in the dusty trades as well as other health and safety topics.

Key Developments in Health and Safety

The first industries targeted by OSHA for health and safety hazards were: marine cargo handling, roofing, sheet metal, meat products, miscellaneous transportation equipment (primarily mobile homes) and lumber and wood products.

These health and safety hazards were also targeted: asbestos, lead, silica, carbon monoxide and cotton dust. Since the passage of the OSH Act:

  • The rate of workplace injuries and illnesses has declined from 11 per 100 workers to 3.6 per 100 workers
  • Health and safety standards, including those for trenching, machine guarding, asbestos, benzene, lead, and bloodborne pathogens have prevented countless work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths
  • Employees' health and safety rights were protected, including the right to file a complaint with OHSA. In 1977, a new rule required employers to compensate employees for participating in the OSHA inspection process
  • The agency has reduced workplace injury and illness rates by more than half

In the beginning OSHA targeted its enforcement resources on a "worst case first" approach which involved setting standards for the hazards most likely to cause harm.

Early Health and Safety Standards

One of OSHA's early standards was for vinyl chloride, a colorless flammable gas that evaporates quickly. Vinyl chloride is used to make PVC pipes, wire coating, vehicle upholstery and plastic kitchen ware. In 1974 a standard was established when an epidemic of liver cancer suddenly became evident among exposed employees.

Other early standards included coke, a solid fuel made by heating coal, noise, cotton dust, lead, asbestos, beryllium and a number of industrial chemicals, carcinogen inorganic arsenic. (Interestingly, John Stender was given the job of OSHA assistant secretary in part because of his personal understanding of workplace hazards: Stender lost part of his hearing while working inside boilers.)

Major Health and Safety Disasters

  • In 1976 a pesticide manufacturing plant in Hopewell, Virginia, had 29 employees hospitalized with nerve damage
  • Scaffolding collapsed at a power plant's cooling town construction site in Willow Island, West Virginia. Fifty-one employees died
  • The chemical release in Bhopal, India of methyl isocyanate in 1984 killed thousands and led to an OHSA review of all chemical companies in the U.S. that had similar chemical processes
  • The case of the Exxon Valdez in 1989 involved the catastrophic release of many thousands of barrels of crude oil along the Alaskan coastline

OHSA is a relatively small federal agency and yet it is responsible for the health and safety of 130 million American workers. With only 2,000 inspectors and 7 million worksites, its reach is limited.

OSHA compliance cannot be left entirely to the administration. Employers, employees and OSHA must work together to create workplaces that are safe for its workers. To learn simple, effective ways to support workplace safety, call Graphic Products at 1-888-326-9244. and speak to one of our representatives. Every life matters and every worker deserves a safe workplace!

The information presented in this document was obtained from sources that we deem reliable; Graphic Products does not guarantee accuracy or completeness. Graphic Products, Inc. makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied. Users of this document should consult municipal, state, and federal code and/or verify all information with the appropriate regulatory agency.

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