The History of Workplace Health & Safety

Workplace safety and health slowly became issues as the United States rapidly
industrialized. Unions and reformers first promoted the need for safer working conditions.
Workers had few options if they became injured or ill on the job until state governments
created regulations for industries like coal mining and manufacturing. Many viewed the
system of state laws that protected workers as imperfect, and Congress stepped in to
regulate workplace safety at the beginning of the 1970s.

1. Workplace Safety and Health in the Late 19th Century

  • Concern over workers’ safety and health on the job arose in the late 1900s as
    the United States became an industrial power. The increasing use of heavy
    machinery in areas like mining, railroad freight and manufacturing resulted in
    accidents that crippled or even killed workers. Workers and their families during
    the late 1800s had little recourse except to sue employers who could afford
    more talented lawyers. States took tentative steps toward regulating industries
    like coal mining and manufacturing as early as 1869, but not until the early 1900s did the actions of states force industries to reduce the possibility of work-related accidents or illness.

2. Progressive Era Reforms

  • During the Progressive Era in U.S. history (roughly 1900-1920), a coalition of
    journalists, businessmen, unions and politicians used the power of the
    government to mitigate the worst effects of rapid industrialization. In 1911 New
    York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Co. caught fire, and 146 of 300 employees died.
    Managers had locked the exit doors, claiming employees would steal from the
    company and could be permitted to leave only under supervision. The tragedy
    became a rallying point for reformers.

3. The Rise of Workers’ Compensation

  • States responded by passing workers’ compensation laws. In 1910 New York
    was the first state to pass a workers’ compensation law, which forced
    companies to make restitution to workers or their families according to
    established rates. The rest of the states followed New York’s lead during the
    next decade. When companies became subject to workers’ compensation laws,
    they had a financial incentive to encourage safer working practices and

4. The Intervention of the Federal Government

  • While the state workers’ compensation and other regulatory laws helped
    decrease the incidence of accidents, they did not cover all of the potential
    workplace hazards. So Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health
    Act of 1970 (OSHAct). The OSHAct created the Occupational Safety and
    Health Administration (OSHA) within the Department of Labor, making the
    safety and health of private-sector workplaces the purview of the federal
    government. OSHA established safety standards, researched workplace
    hazards and educated workers about their rights.

5. OSHA Controversy

  • Since its inception, OSHA has inspired controversy along political lines.
    Politically liberal critics assert OSHA takes too long to act on new information
    requiring a revision of safety standards and poorly enforces the standards it has
    enacted. Political conservatives argue OSHA is overly cautious, imposing costly
    and unnecessary regulations on industry. As a result, politicians on both sides
    of the aisle have repeatedly called for the reform of OSHA