The History of Construction Safety
10.3M employees worked in construction in the U.S. in 2016. Construction jobs therefore account for roughly 5% of all American jobs, yet more than 17% of fatalities in the workplace in America are suffered by construction workers.
It is difficult to believe that these jobs are still so dangerous with all the safety regulations and laws that have been implemented over the years. Looking back at history, it is however clear that there has been a definite improvement in workplace safety in the construction environment over the years.
The History of Construction Safety - Timeline
There were virtually no safety measures for physical labor jobs in the first part of the 1800s. This only started to change for the better later in the century. Workers only started buying insurance for accidents in the workplace after the Civil War. Employers also started providing insurance for their workers and some provided alternative work for employees that were injured on the job. As many workers felt construction jobs were so dangerous that they didn’t want to risk doing them, employers could only attract enough workers by raising the wages on dangerous jobs.
Industry policies were gradually changed due to this climate, and mining and railroad regulatory commissions were founded to try and mandate a work environment that was safer. These however often had little power and were more often than not unable to really influence conditions in the workplace.
In 1900, around 300 out of 100 000 miners died on the job per year. That is nearly a death per day! Today, that number has been reduced to about 9 out of 100 000 per year.
In those days, workers had to sue their employers for damages if they were injured on the job, and winning was very difficult. Only around 50% of workplace fatality cases were awarded compensation, and the award was typically a pitiful half year’s wages. As employee deaths cost employers so little and there were no real legal consequences, worker safety was not a high priority.
A compensation law for workers was passed by New York in 1910, following European examples. Rather than injured workers having to sue employers for damages, this law forced employers to pay compensation for injuries at a prescribed rate. This resulted in more reliable and better benefits for workers, while it also meant more predictable costs and more satisfied employees for employers. All but 6 states had passed compensation laws for workers by 1921.
1913 saw the founding of the National Safety Council (NSC) aimed at upholding the health and safety of American workers. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the U.S. Congress recognized the importance of this and the NSC was granted a Congressional charter.
In 1913, the U.S. Department of Labor was also created, focusing on among other things, occupational safety.
The Federal Compensation Act was established in 1916. This act benefits workers who contract illnesses or sustain injuries while working. The act also lead to the Office of Worker’s Compensation Program being created.
The Golden Gate Bridge project brought major changes to safety in the construction industry. Although there were some safety measures in place in other jobs, this project was the first major construction where safety was made mandatory.
Joseph Strauss, the chief engineer for the project, was determined to make the bad statistics in safety a thing of the past. He was so worried about worker safety that he instituted a number of revolutionary measures:
- He purchases safety nets used for acrobatic stunts for $130,000. These ensured that if a worker fell, they would be caught. The safety nets alone saved 19 lives.
- Anyone doing high-risk stunts or not wearing their safety gear was dismissed immediately.
- This was also the first U.S. construction site where using hard hats was mandatory.
The list of mandatory Safety Features also included:
- Visibility was enhanced and “snow blindness” created by the water prevented by the use of glare-free goggles.
- The inhalation of lead-tainted fumes by riveters was prevented by respirator masks.
- Dizziness during construction was prevented by using a carefully formulated diet.
- Skin was protected against the strafing winds by using special hand and face cream.
- Hangovers were cured with sauerkraut juice.
- An on-site field hospital was located near the construction site.
In the more than 4 years of construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, there were only 11 workplace fatalities. 10 of these were caused by a single incident when a suspended platform broke. This means there were only two fatal incidents during the entire construction.
This is the decade in which the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) was passed.
The act’s aim is to provide a safe working environment for workers by enforcing safety standards. It also assists American States in assuring safe and healthy working conditions, and provides information, research, training and education.
This act led to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health being created. The institute does research and then uses the outcome of the studies to make recommendations on safety.
1990s – Today
In 1996, the National Occupational Research Agenda was founded. It conducts research aimed at decreasing the number of illnesses and injuries at work.
Currently, workplace injuries costs U.S. companies about a billion dollars per week and 1 in 7 construction workers is injured at the workplace per year.
DOD’s Answer to OSHA - The History of Construction Safety
Although OSHA safety requirements are mandatory in most industries, the Department of Defense (DoD) and the military have their own set of regulations known as EM-385. Although most of the rules of this safety requirement are very similar to OSHA, there are several small differences.
The EM-385 Safety and Health Requirements Manual is published and updated by the US Corps of Engineers (USACE). Any business wanting to work on a military contract has to become familiar with and adhere to this manual. Failure to do so could lead to the cancellation of the military contract
Summary - The History of Construction Safety
Although safety in the construction industry has made substantial progress in the last century, it is still necessary to continuously improve what we do, how we do it, and the safety regulations put in place to eliminate fatalities in the workplace. Change never comes easy, but that should not stop us from striving to make changes that will keep our workers safe.
It is estimated that construction spending in 2016 was about 1.2 trillion dollars. We can see from past and present research that construction jobs have many hazards, and we need to ensure that these risks are mitigated as much as possible in order for our construction industry to thrive and grow.
Construction workers play a crucially important role in our society. They are responsible for building businesses, houses, roads, dams, hospitals, schools, etc. and maintain our country’s physical infrastructure. The simple truth is that without construction workers, our nation would not be able to progress.
The History of Construction Safety