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Knowledge at Work - UL Workplace Health & Safety

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Workplace Safety

Evolution of Workplace Safety Yields Four Steps for Safer Working Environments

June 06, 2014 - Posted by Todd Hohn

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In the aftermath of ASSE’s Safety 2014, industry professionals can be reminded of the continuous evolution of safety precautions, regulations, and products. The impact of safety in the workplace has been great and will continue to improve through innovative products coupled with responsible procedures in the U.S. and globally.

The evolution (or as some would refer to it, “revolution”) of safety in the US has a long storied past marred with tragic and catastrophic events.  Each one provides a unique perspective into how future events can be prevented if we take the time to learn from them.  If time travel was a possibility, the past would show that safety started long before there were regulations. Some of the earliest examples of this involved Dr. Ramazzini who was known at the “Father of Occupational Medicine." In 1700, he advised physicians to ask patients about their occupation when diagnosing disease, which led to the identification of specific occupational diseases for 52 different occupations.  This was one of the first instances of a direct correlation between a person’s job and the impact it had on their body. In other words, the work we do may be dangerous!

In fact, the start of UL was based on this premise. People were being injured and killed, and structures were being burned and destroyed. These unfortunate occurrences were a result of electricity being introduced at the Chicago world's fair in 1893. Following the introduction, the protection of people and property from the hazards of electricity was the original purpose of UL. It has since evolved over the past 120 years to a mission of the promotion of safe living and working environments for people everywhere.

Turn the clock forward to the early 1900’s to magnify another safety issue, and we start to paint a picture of deplorable working conditions for immigrant laborers working in the meat packing plants in Chicago. This was played out in the book written by Upton Sinclair titled, “The Jungle,” that resulted in public outcry and, later, the creation of new laws and regulations for the food industry. In fact, many books on this topic were being written at this time, and, in turn, Americans were struggling with how much responsibility a workplace had in the safety of their employees. 

Perhaps one of the most defining instances to provide clarity in workplace safety occurred in 1911: the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. It resulted in 146 garment workers dying from fire, smoke inhalation, and jumping to their death in efforts to escape. Key notable factors that led to such a high death toll were the locked exit doors and stairwells. Originally designed to prevent workers from pilfering the garments that were being manufactured, the locked exit ways were detrimental in the number of fatalities. ”The Jungle” impacted the safety of the meatpacking industry, and it took the Triangle Shirtwaist fire to alter conditions of workplace safety for garment workers. The result was new regulations in stiffer fire safety standards as well as the creation of organized workforces (in the form of unions) to drive improved working conditions for all garment workers.  

Later that year in 1911, the American Society of Safety Engineers was created.  This organization, along with the National Safety Council formed in 1913, brought more awareness to workplace safety. Awareness led to more protection in the form of new laws and regulations, improved enforcement of the new laws and regulations, engineering, construction improvements, technology and training.

While there are many tragic events that could be referenced from the past, the crucial point to recognize is incidents continue to occur. In the case of the U.S., we are seeing record lows related to workplace accident rates and lower fatalities as a result. The continuation of bad events is inevitable, but each time they occur, they become a learning opportunity. For the U.S., the seriousness of accidents has become more and more severe and as a result, the public gets upset, regulators respond, and organizations improve (learning).  Each time an event occurred, more attention was geared toward the issue of workplace health and safety. However, of all the instances, there's typically one defining event that changes the course of history. For example, some would argue in this country, it was the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Following that tragedy, epic changes in fire, electrical, life safety, and building codes occurred that improved working conditions. 

Now, a question is posed. Can emerging economies learn from the evolution of workplace safety in the U.S. over the last 100 years and accelerate their learning to minimize the death, destruction, and tragedy associated with workplace accidents? I would argue they can, and we can use the evolution of workplace safety in the U.S. to chart that course. To accelerate the process, the following things need to happen:

  1. Be a Leader: Just like any initiative, ownership needs to step up and drive the improvements.  Leaders don’t surface by sitting back and waiting for regulations to drive improvements. When looking at the best companies today, they are anchored by strong leadership who recognize if they simply comply, they will be average. IF a company is average, people will still get hurt and possibly die. Leaders need to do more. In addition, fires will continue to occur, and it will be difficult to attract employees and maintain morale. Company production and, ultimately, company business will suffer.
  2. Make yourself relevant: To build on the leadership component, strive for new standards of excellence in workplace health and safety. Companies can't afford to wait for regulations to be created in their country to be irrelevant; go see what other best companies have done and emulate them. Leverage these experts to create new internal standards around fire, life safety, construction, and prevention methods to drive improvements in workplace safety.
  3. Engage third parties: Engage experts from third parties to help create internal standards around fire protection, electrical, life safety, building construction, and workplace safety. In addition, use third parties to audit company facilities and compare findings with what existing standards say. These audits should be conducted unannounced and at regular intervals to ensure your expectations are consistently being met.
  4. Provide Transparency: The best organizations manage with confidence and are not afraid to show how good they are. However, these companies are equally as honest about where improvements must be made. Knowing your business well enough to recognize gaps equates to a perception of competence within both your peer group and customer base. Provide this transparency to outside groups as well as internal communication channels to demonstrate where you are at and what you still need to do to make the improvements necessary to be most effective.

Four steps, amazing! In 125+ years of rules and regulations and just plain “trying to get it right,” we can boil this down to just four steps. Admittedly, the steps to take are large. It may seem insurmountable at times to get every piece of this puzzle to work together to achieve operational and safety excellence. However, the fact is, the world is once again at a crossroads as it relates to workplace health and safety. As it occurred in 1911 after the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire or after the publishing of “The Jungle,” the calls for change are deafening. However, unlike those times, let’s lead this change as business leaders. Don’t wait. Be relevant. Be best in class. These are not “issues.” They are lives, and we all have a duty to protect people and property to the best of our abilities. 

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