Some believe employers have been cooking their injury logs. I doubt that practice statistically is a major factor. The more likely causes include external pressure by OSHA, created in the 1970s, automation of work processes, and better risk management.
Starting in the 1910s, American employers scored even more dramatic work safety gains than those seen recently. Between World War I and the end of the 1930s, workplace fatality and injury rates dropped by well over half.
Mark Aldrich's history of work safety, Safety First, shows how this massive transformation in work safety reflected a three-step formula strikingly like that of recent decades: new external pressure on employers, changes in work processes, and safety professionalism.
American industry entered the 20th century with little regard for worker safety. American mines, railroads, and factories incurred higher rates of work fatalities than European employers. This was in part because American work design and labor practices focused more aggressively on maximizing production, creating more mechanization, and operating on a larger scale.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of March 25, 1911 motivated state houses to act on worker safety and workers' compensation. The Monongah, W.V., mining explosion of 1907, which killed at least 362 men and children, also pushed states to create or strengthen occupational safety agencies.
Frances Perkins, a witness to the Triangle Fire, created and ran a Committee on Safety, which led to a New York State investigative commission and the passage of 26 factory safety laws within a few years. Perkins went on to be President Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of labor.
Workers' compensation reform swept through the country in the 1910s and proved to be a game changer for many employers. It increased the cost of accidents, as the reformers envisioned. After a no-fault system was put in, a worker fatality cost an employer, or its insurer, thousands of dollars instead of a few hundred.
The insurers tuned up their business models. As early as 1911, experience rating of workers' compensation policies was introduced and shortly thereafter scheduled credits for safety measures.
Insurers invested inspection staffs and medical intelligence. And there emerged for the first time a national leadership in worker safety, arising out of the interplay of professional engineers, management, and regulators.
In the early decades of the 20th century, industrial technology married safety thought leadership. The American Society of Safety Engineers was formed in 1911. The National Safety Council arose out of a meeting of local safety councils in 1912. Employers created safety departments and formed safety committees.
Advances in safety during these early decades were quite uneven. Yet there was significant progress overall. One example of innovation was the use of electrical power in factories. Advances in electrical engines led to better factory lighting and to safer work stations.
The successful formula then is the formula now: intelligent regulation, safer work design, and improved risk management.
PETER ROUSMANIERE is an expert on the workers' compensation industry.
May 1, 2011
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