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History of Workplace Safety in the United States

Updated on March 25, 2016
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View of the Grover Shoe factory boiler explosion disaster from Church & Alden Shoe Factory, Brockton, Massachusetts. March 20, 1905. Smokestack and ruins at right, Dahlborg Block at left, ruined dwellings in background.Elevated train structure damaged by shrapnel from the 1919 Boston Molasses Disaster.
View of the Grover Shoe factory boiler explosion disaster from Church & Alden Shoe Factory, Brockton, Massachusetts. March 20, 1905. Smokestack and ruins at right, Dahlborg Block at left, ruined dwellings in background.
View of the Grover Shoe factory boiler explosion disaster from Church & Alden Shoe Factory, Brockton, Massachusetts. March 20, 1905. Smokestack and ruins at right, Dahlborg Block at left, ruined dwellings in background.
Elevated train structure damaged by shrapnel from the 1919 Boston Molasses Disaster.
Elevated train structure damaged by shrapnel from the 1919 Boston Molasses Disaster.

3 Deadliest U.S. Workplace Tragedies

Texas City

The Texas City disaster of April 16, 1947 was the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history, killing nearly 600 people. The deadly accident occurred when about 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate detonated by a fire on the SS Grandcamp which was docked in the Port of Texas City with the cargo.

In 2005, Texas City dealt with another deadly fire that left 15 dead while wounding 170.

Port Chicago, California

Three years earlier, in 1944, on the evening of July 17 military personnel and civilian employees were hand loading two cargo ships with munitions headed for the Pacific Theater war effort during WWII. The pair of ships had 5,000 tons of bombs and was adjacent to a train with 10 boxcars filled with munitions. An explosion occurred between 10-10:30 p.m. that was reportedly heard 200 miles away. More than 300 people died in the explosion.

New York City

Thirty-three years earlier, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire left 146 workers dead. Fire broke out on the eight floor of the building on the afternoon of March 25, 1911. Although, fire departments responded relatively quickly to the scene, efforts to fight the blaze were hampered by ladders that would not reach beyond the 6th floor. Backlash from the tragedy was instrumental in getting modern safety laws enacted.

It doesn't seem probable, but in the United States 12 people die every day on the job. But what may be even more surprising, is the cause of death and the industry and occupations where these deaths occur is not police officers or even military personnel. And, most of the deaths occur in jobs that pay less than $40,000 a year.

No Laws

America has a checkered past when it comes to safety inside the workplace. When the Industrial Revolution occurred in the late 1800s, legislation tended to lag behind the need to properly protect workers. In fact, children were victims of many of the deaths and laws prohibiting child labor would not even be legislated until 1938 when minimum ages of employment and hours of work for children were finally regulated by federal law.

OSHA and MSHA

Currently two of the most influential agencies concerning workplace safety are the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

Although MSHA was created in 1977, it predecessor, the Bureau of Mines, was created in 1910 in an effort to control and regulate the mining industry which had an alarmingly high rate of death among its workers. In fact, in a 5-year period between 1906 and 1911 -- 13,228 miners were killed in U.S. coal mines.

As late as the 1950s, an average of 450 coal miners died annually in workplace accidents. Fortunately, increased regulation and safety measures have drastically reduced that number. In 2012, only 19 coal miners died in accidents.

When OSHA was established in 1970, the average number of American killed on the job was 38 per day. OSHA says,

Since 1970, workplace fatalities have been reduced by more than 65 percent and occupational injury and illness rates have declined by 67 percent. At the same time, U.S. employment has almost doubled.

Enforcing Regulation

One of the issues that have led to the death of Americans in workplace accidents has been the lack of enforcement of existing laws. In a 1913 strike by Colorado miners over safety (and pay) issues that eventually led to the Ludlow Massacre -- legislators pointed out after the fact that if the safety laws already enacted in Colorado had been enforced, the number of mining deaths would have been greatly reduced.

A newspaper in Chicago, The Day Book, reporting on a factory fire the same year quoted the law in its article about the death of Anna Imroth who was killed in the fire.

"All doors; used by employes as exits from any factory shall open outward and shall be so constructed as to be easily and immediately opened from within in case of fire or other emergency." -- From a Law of the Sovereign State of Illinois.

Imroth, the article reported "was burned to death in the fire that destroyed the T. G. Riordan factory at 2010 West Kinzie Street. Her burned body was found by a fireman crumpled up against a door on the ground floor of the factory. That door opened inward."

It was the lack of regulation enforcement and inspection that led to her untimely death.

Top 3 Causes of Workplace Death Today

In the modern era, it is cars, violence and equipment that are the leading causes of workplace deaths. According to the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) report released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, transportation incidents were the cause for two out of every five fatal work injuries in 2012.

This was followed by violence and other injuries by persons or animals which accounted for 17 percent of the deaths. In the deaths where the violence was committed by another human, it was most often a shooting.

In third place, by just one percent, were deaths caused by workers being injured by equipment or objects. These types of injuries accounted for 16 percent of the deaths.

© 2014 Charlie Claywell

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    • jai abhishek bose profile image

      jai abhishek bose 3 years ago

      very interesting.....:)

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