There were several landmark incidents in 1911 that forever changed the practice of occupational safety and health. Many were bad, but one was very good.
The first was the Triangle Shirt Factory fire in New York City, which occurred in March 1911. Nearly 150 women and young girls working in the factory died as they tried to escape from a fire and found the fire exits to be locked and the fire extinguishing systems not working. This fire spurred the government to enact laws were to protect workers.
That same year, the government began taking a long hard look at mining fatalities. From 1906-1911, 13,228 miners were killed in U.S. coalmines. As a result, the Bureau of Mines was established by Congress to improve the safety of miners.
And on Oct. 14, 1911, in a move that has benefited worker safety and health ever since, the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) was launched by 62 members of the United Society of Casualty Inspectors in New York. The inspectors recognized the workplace was changing rapidly, and they decided that there was an immediate need to reduce the increasing amount of workplace fatalities and injuries.
Insurance carriers, which employed the inspectors to profitably underwrite property and employers' liability for worker injuries, soon saw a cost benefit relationship between occupational safety engineering and a company's bottom line. They began to meet and share information on best practices in an effort to reduce workplace risk.
This was a daunting task at that time. For instance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1913 documented approximately 23,000 industrial deaths among a workforce of 38 million people, equivalent to a rate of 61 deaths per 100,000 workers.
Around the turn of the century, deaths and maiming became common due to several factors including the increase in the construction of multi-story structures; the expansion of railroads and bridge construction; the advent of the first powered industrial processes; development of raw materials through the chemical industry and through mining for power generation; and mass production of products along with mechanization.
In the early 1900s, ASSE and its members began meeting with their peers to discuss mutual safety problems and remedies. The group's primary purpose was to promote harmonious action in safety work and to educate members by means of lectures, discussion or otherwise, in all matters relating to industrial safety and accident prevention. For instance, in 1912, 200 members attended a meeting to hear a technical lecture on guarding woodworking machinery.
"One basic tenet of effective leadership is the ability to cast and sustain a vision," ASSE President Eddie Greer notes. "On Oct. 14, 1911, the 62 members of the United Society of Casualty Inspectors did just that when they formed ASSE. Their stated purpose to promote 'harmonious action in safety work and educate members in all matters relating to industrial safety and accident prevention' is similar to ASSE's current vision 'to be the premier organization and resource for those engaged in the practice of protecting people, property and the environment and to lead the profession globally.'"
Over the years, as the workplace rapidly changed, so did the risks. In 1970, Congress passed the landmark Occupational Safety and Health Act created to enhance workplace safety and prevent injuries and fatalities. President Richard M. Nixon signed the Act into law.
Now, with more than 30,000 occupational safety, health and environmental professionals, ASSE is celebrating its 90th anniversary and its commitment to protecting people, property and the environment.
"Through our vision, we as professionals and ASSE as an organization, must continue to create safe, healthy, environments for all workers," Greer continues.
There have been many positive safety changes in those 90 years, but more has to be done, according to ASSE. Last year in the United States, 5,915 people died from work-related injuries and thousands more suffered injuries and contracted life-threatening diseases.
Today ASSE continues to provide its members, employers, employees, the general public and the media with the most current information and professional development programs on all aspects of the occupational safety, health and environmental field. This is done through seminars, symposiums, local chapter meetings, conferences, the ASSE Web site (www.asse.org), the ASSE Foundation and ongoing external communications. ASSE also develops nationally and even, internationally recognized safety standards.
"Throughout history, the safety profession and safety professionals have attempted to improve working conditions. Through these efforts, many lives are spared each day," Greer says. "But our work is not complete. Until each worker returns home in the same condition he or she came to work, we still have a formidable task at hand. Safety professionals must collectively adopt a vision to establish an incident-free work environment as the norm."
edited by Sandy Smith