History of Workplace Safety

A Look at over 200 years of safety developments in the workplace

vintage empire state building construction photos by lewis wickes hine

To know where you’re going, you need to know where you’ve been. People spend a lot of time on current trends in the workplace, but don’t often look back at how work has evolved. One area that doesn’t get enough attention is the history of workplace safety. In this post, we’ll look at how safety has improved over time to appreciate just how far we’ve come.

Industry on the Rise

Workplace safety concerns began in Europe with the labour movement during the Industrial Revolution. During this movement, Workers formed unions and began to demand better working conditions. Government organizations responded by regulating the workplace and forcing safer work practices. Because most organizations were industry specific, industries developed safety regulations independent of each other. We’ll be looking at key industries from this time to see how their safety standards developed.

Mining Gains Steam

Group of child miners at the turn of the century. Source: Wikipedia

Group of child miners at the turn of the century. Source: Wikipedia

Beginning in the late 1600s, shaft mining increased when the steam pump made it possible to remove water from deep shafts. In the 1770s, steam engines became more efficient and fuel costs dropped, making mines also became more profitable.

Mines at the time often employed children, and were incredibly dangerous. Besides equipment accidents, miners faced collapsing beams, rock falls, suffocation, and floods. Poisonous and flammable gases were unseen dangers that could explode if ignited.

Over time, developments in technology worked their way into the mining industry. The safety lamp was invented in 1816, and enclosed the flame to prevent ignition of gases found in mines. Further improvements came with electric lighting and battery-powered lamps.

Manufacturing Change

When manufacturing moved workers into factories, new kinds of hazards began to present themselves. Factory work at the time meant long hours with poor ventilation and dangerous equipment.

In 1784, poor working conditions cause a fever outbreak among cotton mill workers in the United Kingdom. This eventually led to the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act in 1802. The act required factories to provide proper ventilation and clean work spaces. While it was not regularly enforced, this act set a precedent for factory acts that followed.

The Railroad Makes Tracks

Men standing on an open train. Source: Wikipedia

Men standing on an open train. Source: Wikipedia

Early trains and rail systems were built weak. Even though they were much more slow than today’s rail systems, they were very dangerous. Common injuries and fatalities in the railroad industry included boiler explosions and train wrecks. Making matters worse, railroad bridges often weren’t strong enough to support their load. This lead to occasional collapses as trains crossed.

Poor braking systems and heavy loads meant stopping could be difficult. In the United States, heavy traffic on single-track lines made collisions common. Workers operated hand brakes on top of cars, leading to many deaths during train wrecks. In 1851-52, 28 percent of fatalities reported in New York were the result of falls from trains. Poor safety records became an increasing concern for the railroad.

By the 1870s, air brakes became standard equipment on most passenger trains. Freight trains followed in 1881. In 1893, these new developments produced the United States’ federal Safety Appliance Act.  The act mandated air brakes, automated couplers, and handholds on all railroad cars carrying freight.

Developments in Agriculture

Working on a farm around the turn of the century. Source: Wikipedia

Working on a farm around the turn of the century. Source: Wikipedia

Agricultural workers historically dealt with infectious diseases from animal waste, spoiled grain, and particulate matter. When agriculture industrialized, workers faced new dangers from pesticides and mechanized equipment. As science and medicine began to transform agriculture, worker safety was also affected.

The study of microbes and diseases helped workers, but advancements also brought other dangers. Chemicals like pesticides were originally only tested for their effectiveness, without concern for workers. Since then, government organizations have now helped label chemicals for toxicity and potential health impacts. Policy improvements in the 20th century eventually led to chemicals being tested for safety.

Workplace Safety Evolves

Like the Industrial Revolution, the Digital Revolution has changed where and how people work. With many people now working alone, governments have identified lone workers as being especially at risk. Lone workers range from people working with the public to workers in the energy industry. Even self employed or mobile workers can be lone workers.

As with other safety issues, legislation has also increased the adoption of lone worker safety. Services and equipment now provide safety for lone workers, including check-in based monitoring solutions.

Looking Forward

Businessman hand pressing touch screen with pictures of workers
Looking at the change over the past 200 years, it’s easy to see how safety evolved to meet the needs of the workplace. The Industrial Revolution created new kinds of jobs, and the Digital Revolution has done the same. In an tech-savvy world, the future is looking bright for workplace safety.


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