The good old days? Not for machine operators.
When manufacturing moved from small shops to factories during the Industrial Revolution, inexperienced, often very young workers were confronted with a confusing jumble of moving belts, pulleys and gears. While pre-industrial craftsmen faced risks from kilns and hand tools, industrialization introduced massive steam engines and fast-moving machines. Adults and children, some as young as four years old, operated unprotected machinery 12-16 hours a day under conditions unheard of today, with many losing their lives.
In America the use of labor-saving machines was driven by a regulatory climate that discouraged employer’s interest in safety. As a result, manufacturers at the time developed machinery that was both highly productive and very dangerous. Overworked American factory workers in the 1900s faced life with missing limbs, damaged vision and hearing, lung infections, and severe burn injuries.
Workers who were injured might sue employers for damages, yet winning proved difficult. If employers could show that the worker had assumed the risk, acted carelessly or had been injured by the actions of a fellow employee, courts would usually deny liability. Only about half of all workers fatally injured recovered anything and their average compensation amounted to only half a year’s pay. Because employee accidents were so cheap, industrial machinery was developed with little reference to safeguarding.
Not unexpectedly, reports from state labor bureaus were full of tragedies that struck the unlucky. These reports spurred the budding labor movement to call for factory safety. In 1877, Massachusetts passed the Nation’s first factory inspection law. It required guarding of belts, shafts and gears, protection on elevators, and adequate fire exits. Its passage prompted a flurry of state factory acts. By 1890, nine states provided for factory inspectors, 13 required machine safeguarding, and 21 made limited provision for health hazards.
On the national level, Congress passed a federal employers’ liability law in 1908 that made it more expensive for companies to have a machine accident on their books. Thanks to the new law, worker injuries that once cost companies $200 to resolve now cost almost $2,000. In 1910, the state of New York created a workmen’s compensation law that forced companies to automatically compensate for workplace injuries, eliminating the need for families to take corporations to court. By 1921, 43 more states had followed New York’s lead and established their own compensation laws. Compensation laws and other liability costs suddenly made workplace injuries an expensive proposition for many employers.
What followed was a slow but steady increase in machine safeguarding. Manufacturing companies began to work to create safer production equipment, and managers began getting tasked with identifying machine dangers.
In 1913, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics documented approximately 23,000 industrial deaths among a workforce of 38 million — a rate of about 61 deaths per 100,000 workers. Although the reporting system has changed over the years, the figure dropped to 37 deaths per 100,000 workers by 1933 and 3.5 per 100,000 full-time-equivalent workers in 2010. A major contributor to the trend in fewer deaths was machine safeguarding.
After WWII accidents declined as powerful labor unions played an increasingly important role in worker safety. Personnel Protective Equipment (PPE) became a requirement with gloves, masks and aprons given to workers. Posters were hung throughout the plant floor reminding workers of their responsibility to think and act in a safe manner. Basic guards and safety mats became common features around industrial machinery. Also, the American Standards Association published its “Safety Code for Mechanical Power Transmission Apparatus” in the 1940s. Very similar to OSHA 1910.218 it was written to serve as a guide for machine manufacturers in guarding systems. The National Safety Council found that the injury frequency rate dropped from 15 injuries per 100 full-time workers in 1941 to 9 in 1950. By 1956, it reached a decade low of 6 per 100 workers. As impressive as those numbers were, the on-the-job death toll in the 1950s remained a stubborn 13,000-16,000 workers annually.
In the 1960s economic expansion again led to rising injury rates with 14,000 workers dying each year. An additional 2.2 million workers were injured on the job. Resulting political pressures led Congress to establish the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1970. On December 29, 1970, President Richard Nixon signed into law the Williams-Steiger Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act), which gave the Federal Government the authority to set and enforce safety and health standards for most of the country’s workers. This act was the result of a hard fought legislative battle that began in 1968 when President Lyndon Johnson unsuccessfully sought a similar measure.
In the House, Representative William A. Steiger worked for passage of his bill by saying: “In the last 25 years, more than 400,000 Americans were killed by work-related accidents and disease, and close to 50 million more suffered disabling injuries on the job. Not only has this resulted in incalculable pain and suffering for workers and their families, but such injuries have cost billions of dollars in lost wages and production.”
When the agency opened for business in April 1971, OSHA covered 56 million workers at 3.5 million workplaces. Today, 105 million private-sector workers and employers at 6.9 million sites look to OSHA for guidance on workplace safety and health issues.
Safeguarding technology and requirements have come a long way since the Industrial Revolution. Advanced light curtains, interlocked guards, laser-guided systems and presence sensors are now commonplace. Despite this progress, the lack of machine guarding has been named to OSHA’S Top 10 Most Cited Violations List virtually every year since the list began. In 2018 OSHA handed out nearly 2,000 violations to companies for failing to have machines and equipment adequately guarded, underscoring how much work there is left to do.
In many respects, we take today’s focus on machine safety for granted. However, by reviewing history we can see how it has benefited society by radically reducing accidents and deaths.