Look at 100,000 people. If you worked in the mining industry in 1900, then 300 of them would be dead at the end of the year, according to the Economic History Association.
Today due to increased work safety practices, that number has been reduced to less than 10 per year. With improvement like that, it would seem to be a no brainer, getting to this point was a rather complicated process.
“Life is Cheap”
In the Industrial Era, production was king. The workplace was more dangerous in general because companies could get by with unsafe practices in the name of higher output.
Especially dangerous occupations
SafetyLine lists mining, manufacturing, and railroad as the most dangerous jobs in earlier times.
Mining – With the development of the steam pump, miners could mine in deep, previously unexplored tunnels. Yet, between the lack of communication and open flame lamps, tunnel cave-ins and gas explosions were very common.
Manufacturing – Factory employees worked long hours with very poor air flow. SafetyLine discusses the prevalence of sickness outbreaks among the tired and closely huddled workers.
Railroad – Weak bridges often collapsed on rail lines. Because brakes on top of the train carts were manually operated, this often resulted in deadly crashes. To address this, George Westinghouse developed air brakes that would function on freight trains, and Ely Janney invented automated car coupling. The drop in accidents that resulted from these inventions roused Congressional action. They passed the Safety Appliance Act of 1893 requiring their use on all freight trains.
During these times, child labor was prevalent in a variety of grueling industries such as mining and manufacturing. History.com attributes this to the fact that children were easy to control and could fit in small caverns and machinery that adults could not. Child labor finally declined during the Great Depression because of the high demand for work by adults.
Incentivizing the unsafe
Another factor that contributed to unsafe work practices was the low ‘price’ of accidents. Usually businesses convinced the court that the employee (or a fellow employee) was partially at fault, in which case the worker wasn’t compensated at all. Even if the business was fined, usually it was set at very low payouts. It simply wasn’t worth their time to take care of their workers.
Thankfully, human rights and safety advocates paved the way for a safer future.
Evidence of Progress
As more attention was called towards the deadly accidents and the unscrupulous business practices, workers compensation was put into effect. According to the Economic History Association, the implementation of workers compensation meant an accident with a previous cost of $200 would be raised to $2000. This, at least, provided a financial reason for companies to minimize job hazards.
The emergence of OSHA and MSHA
Despite these advances, in times of high demand accidents were once again on the rise. In a JIT economy, businesses became more concerned with filling orders on time. So when the pressure was on, safety concerns were off.
To combat the reemergence, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Association (MSHA) was formed. These government agencies were formed to set and oversee standards for what is considered a safe environment for employees in the workplace.
We have come a long way from seeing human beings as mere statistics. While we still have a long way to go, there are a growing number of safety-minded companies who work hard to continually develop the tools and equipment that make life on the job safer every day.