Study Highlights 100-Year History of Oregon Worker Protections

In a 100-page study, a University of Oregon professor examines how eight state Bureau of Labor Industries (BOL) leaders influenced workplace safety in Oregon throughout the last century, demonstrating that the state government can play a prominent role in ensuring the protection of workers' rights and interests.

“The state’s labor commissioners have often used their position as a bully pulpit, reminding Oregonians that social stability and social decency could not be obtained without an enduring commitment to fair and just treatment for workers,” said Bob Bussel, Ph.D., director of the university’s Labor Education and Research Center.

The History of Safety

The study, “BOL: One Hundred Years of Service to Working Oregonians,” examines the issues various commissioners have faced over the years, beginning with O.P. Hoff, who held office from 1903 to 1919. Hoff led the state’s first factory safety investigations, revealing a “widespread existence of unsafe conditions.”

In his first report, Hoff identified 212 industrial accidents and 27 fatalities, which largely occurred in logging and sawmill operations. After finding that all but 20 of 673 inspected factories had dangerous or unsafe conditions, Hoff obtained the authority to fine violators and force compliance.

The second BOL commissioner, Charles Gram, addressed hazards associated with steam boilers. Ten workers died in boiler accidents between 1918 and 1920, and Gram grew concerned that Oregon was becoming a “dumping ground” for unsafe boilers. A BOL inspection uncovered dangerous conditions at 900 of 3,200 seam boilers and eventually led to safety regulations. Gram went on to initiate plumbing, air tank, electrical wiring and elevator inspections.

The study also offers a comprehensive review of the issues faced by six subsequent commissioners.

Current Challenges

“BOL’s establishment over 100 years ago reflected a social consensus that government regulation was needed to help reconcile the competing interests of workers and employers and provide legal protection to those at risk of being mistreated or exploited,” Bussel wrote.

Bussel also noted that national and state shifts in the last two decades favor less government regulation of workplace and economic affairs. The state’s new challenges, he said, include part-time and temporary employment, a trend of treating workers and independent contractors, the privatization of public jobs and the erosion of employer-provided pension and health benefits.

The report is available at http://www.oregon.gov/BOLI/BOLI_Anniversary.shtml.

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