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History

Why is there occupational safety and health (OSH) in our present-day day world? Exploring what has transpired in the past has set the foundation of what is the modern world of OSH and most likely the future.

From the beginning of man's walk on the earth, people have realized that along with their chosen work come dangers and risk. From the hunter or gatherer, there was the danger of the environment from the natural hazards of weather, catastrophic events, and their predators or prey.

The evolution of OSH can be seen in its history. As the world changed, so did it. From the clothing that was worn every day to protective garments, we might surmise that little has changed, from the knights of the 1500s with their suits of armor to the soldiers of today with their body armor. Of course, the warrior of today has the refinements of modern technology.

But, history has taught us that our failure to consider it will result in us repeating its lessons.

Evolution of OSH

As iterated previously, it did not take long for workers and others to realize that with their work came inherent hazards that were unique to their profession. These could lead to injury and death. Also, there were exposures to substances in their workplace that also could cause both acute and chronic illnesses as well as death. From early on, these potential hazards and dangers were identified as an occupational risk.

Historically, the Egyptians were aware of the dangers from gold and silver fumes. They even had a first-aid manual for workers as early as 3000 BC. In 2000 BC, Hammurabi placed a value on permanent injuries, such as the loss of an eye, for which the owner paid the worker or paid the doctor's bill. In 1500 BC, Ramses hired a physician for quarry workers. In 400 BC, Hippocrates, the father of medicine, realized stonecutters were having breathing problems. In 100 BC, the Romans were aware of the dangers faced by workers. They would free a slave if he/she survived the launching of a ship. The Romans even had a goddess of safety and health named Salus, whose image was often embedded on their coins.

In the Middle Ages, people became more aware of the link between the type of work they did and the types of injuries and illnesses that they sustained. For example, English chimney sweeps in the 1700s were more susceptible to testicular cancer because of the soot. With the advent of the industrial revolution, the use of machinery and the changed work environment saw a rapid rise in the number of injuries, illnesses, and deaths. During this period, the first unions began to be organized to try to protect workers from the hazards of the workplace. The only improvement in the 1800s was fire protection because of pressure from insurance companies. This was soon followed by Massachusetts' requirement

tor factory inspections. Also, the first Acts and Regulations pertaining to mining were introduced. Some safety measures were adopted for other industries such as the railroads with the invention of air brakes and automatic couplers, which saved many lives and amputations.

During the first part of the 1900s, workers' compensation laws started appearing and were finally deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court in 1916. Before this, most employers blamed their workers and held them responsible for workplace incidents, citing what were known as the "common laws," which stated the following:

  • 1. Employer is not responsible when a fellow worker negligently causes your injury.
  • 2. Employer is not responsible if the worker is injured due to his/her own negligence.
  • 3. If an employee takes up a risky job knowing fully well the inherent hazards, the employer is not responsible.

Under the workers' compensation laws, the employers assumed responsibility for their workplaces' safety and health. They were required to provide and pay for medical care and lost wages due to on-the-job incidents. Also at this time, interest was generated in counting the numbers of injuries and deaths; the most famous of these undertakings was the work-related death count for Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, by the Russell Sage Foundation.

It was during this time that mining catastrophes continued to occur and more laws were passed to protect miners. Some catastrophes, such as that at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. in 1910, where 146 young women were killed in a fire because exit doors were locked, demonstrated a need to better protect workers. When 2,000 workers or 50% of the workforce died from silica exposure at Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, the Walsh-Healey Act was passed that required safety and health measures for any employer receiving a government contract. Some companies began to understand their moral responsibility. The American Match Co. allowed other companies in the match-producing industry to use their process, which substituted a safer substance for phosphorus in match making. This resulted in the decrease of an occupational illness called phossy jaw, which caused swelling and pain in the jaw due to phosphorus exposure. A more detailed timeline related to OSH can be found in Occupational Health and Safety: A Practical Approach (Third Edition). The chronology brings the steps in the evolution of OSH up to date.

As pressure mounted from workers and unions to pass some federal laws and the number of injuries, illnesses, and deaths increased, it became more apparent that the state programs for OSH were not protecting workers effectively. If it were not for unions attempting to protect their members, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 would probably not have passed, and workers would have much less protection from job hazards today. Now, most employers have realized that a safe and healthy workplace is more productive and makes good business sense.

There are six good reasons to prevent occupational accidents, injuries, illnesses, and deaths:

  • 1. Destruction of human life is morally unjustified.
  • 2. Failure of employers or workers to take precautions against occupational injuries and illnesses makes them morally responsible for these incidents.
  • 3. Occupational incidents limit efficiency and productivity.
  • 4. Occupational accidents and illnesses produce far-reaching social harm.
  • 5. Safety techniques have produced reduction of accident rates and severity rates.
  • 6. Recent cries and mandates have come forth at the state and federal levels to provide a safe and healthy workplace.
 
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