Workplace safety in construction: Then vs now

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Workplace safety laws establish regulations designed to eliminate personal injuries, both physical and psychological, occurring in the workplace and the Statue protecting the health and safety of workers in the workplace is OSHA or The Occupational and Safety Health Administration.

The factor that led the Congress to establish OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration in 1970 was the economic expansion which resulted in rising injury rates and political pressure.
According to the Public Law 91-596( December 29, 1970, as amended through January 1, 2004):

‘An Act to assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women; by authorizing enforcement of the standards developed under the Act; by assisting and encouraging the States in their efforts to assure safe and healthful working conditions; by providing for research, information, education, and training in the field of occupational safety and health; and for other purposes. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That this Act may be cited as the ‘Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970’.

The dangers of work and workplace safety itself are usually measured by the number of injuries or deaths occurring in a group of workers over a period of one year and even though it can be seen an improvement over the past century, in 1900, three hundred out of every one hundred thousand miners died on the job that year.

Workplace safety- Then

Pre-industrial workers had to face dangers such as animals, stairs, and hand tools. Little is known about that period since there were no certain laws about safety at work, mainly because accidents were cheap and the industry developed with little reference to safety, and even afterward, while the Britains were pioneering the industrialization system in such order to fit their economy and geography,  the American system encouraged and preferred the use of labor, reflecting the natural resources and high wages of the new continent.

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Nowhere was the situation more hazardous than in coal mining. In northeastern Pennsylvania, by 1860s, a few anthracite coal mines reached as much as 1,500 ft into the ground without professional mining engineers, but with two big engineering problems: no system to drain the water and no system to ventilate the mine and basically, to provide the miners with fresh air. Often, the coal was accompanied by methane, a gas which often exploded, which itself was a danger, but also the resulting fire could consume the mine’s entire oxygen supply and suffocate the miners. On the report of the United States Department of Labor, the statistics of coal mines fatalities reached their heights in 1908, with a number of 3,242 deaths(680,492 miners per total) and it only started to go down 1,000 fatalities in 1948, with a total of 999 victims(507,333 miners per total).

Also, the American system for manufacturing and mass production used labor to substitute machinery, by 1900 the workplace was extraordinarily risky by our modern standards for the power sources and machines were largely unguarded. Also, the competition demanded from the factory managers an increasing output, as safety was not an interest.  As a consequence, some workers simply left their job or even tried to sue the employer, but winning proved to be difficult. The life and accident insurance companies started to expand after the Civil War.

Workspace safety- Now

After 1970, workplace safety improved. Now, organizations are legally responsible to ensure,  establish and maintain an environment where workers are safe, with no risk to their welfare and both physical and psychological health.  Employer and employee safety and health are prescribed in legislation, supported by codes and regulations. Proactive workplace safety actions are taken, such as conducting regular hazard inspections, supporting workplace investigations, observing any pattern that might indicate health/safety issues. In contrast to the inefficiency of the past, employers must comply with OSHA’s applicable standards and with the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act which requires a workplace free of any serious recognized hazards. Nearly every employee in the nation comes under OSHA’s jurisdiction with the exception of miners, self-employed, some public employees and some transportation workers.

workplace safety
Mine Safety and Health Administration has a responsibility for administration and enforcement of the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 which protects the workers employed in the nation’s mines and it applies to all mine and mineral processing operations in the US.

The Fair Labor Standards Act has rules concerning the young workers, employees under the age of 18 and it contains age restrictions and jobs they may perform.  FLSA sets limits on the hours a youth under 18 may work and occupations so, for instance, a person under 18 cannot work in the mining industry.

Health and safety programs and organizations are an important part of preventing injury and illness in the workplace. Human suffering and loss are immeasurable and injuries and death change lives forever. Safety transforms a company and its employees into a team with a common goal.

How can digital technologies increase workplace safety?

Workplace safety has gone through a long and difficult process in order to become what it is today. From numerous fatalities and vague legislation to a responsible Tech-friendly part of any work-related entity. With a continuous improving technology, now it is more possible to prevent injuries and illnesses. Some of the Tech trends related to workplace safety are wearables, Artificial intelligence surveillance, better materials, devices, and furniture. Wearables like smartwatches are able to provide immediate feedback about changing environmental conditions, temperature and exposure to chemicals and the RFID technology included in clothing are helping supervisors keep track of an employee’s movement.

Artificial intelligence surveillance means better and smarter cameras, so there will be no questions and lifting shoulders about what happened in the case of an accident. More durable and higher-quality materials are also a trend that keeps everyone safe since the equipment is becoming stronger and lighter in weight.  Some devices that we use in our everyday life can be useful for workers as well, a tablet can provide immediate feedback, communication, and information. Safety technology is becoming more and more available and fortunately, it gets cheaper as it advances, but more important, it keeps everyone safe.

About the author: Gregory A. Cade has been an attorney for over 2 decades, working in environmental, asbestos & mesothelioma law. Together with his firm, Environmental Litigation Group, he has helped hundreds of thousands of clients and has recovered over $1 billion for his clients and hist clients’ families.