Seven Decades of Safety: Good Times Take Their Toll

Americans entered the late 1940s and early 1950s as the heroes of World War II. Patriotism and democractic fervor were at an all-time high. The economy was booming, technology advancing and the work force growing.

The safety field of this era reflected the same sense of optimism and opportunity. The National Safety Council (NSC) found that the all-industry injury frequency rate dropped dramatically from 15.39 injuries per 100 full-time workers in 1941 to 9.30 in 1950. By 1956, it reached a decade-low of 6.38 per 100 workers.

There were other sides to this era, however. The number of occupational deaths ranged from 16,000 in 1951 to 13,300 in 1958 (compared to 5,488 in 2007). Almost all were attributed to traumatic injuries from falls, electrocution and machine hazards.

Perhaps most indicative of the times was that the recognition and control of industrial health hazards had barely begun. Many large companies had doctors and nurses on staff and clinics on-site, but they were devoted to treating traumatic injuries and nonwork-related health problems, such as colds and flus.

A 1955 Occupational Hazards article reported that industrial hygiene had become a practical concern in just the past 10 years. Early articles defined the industrial hygienist as a “health technician” who did everything from air monitoring to ensuring plant and cafeteria sanitation.

Industrial hygienist Louis S. Beliczky remembers the 1949-58 period as a time when it was difficult to get action on worker safety “unless people saw the blood drip.” Talking about long-term health hazards in the 1950s was like being “a lone voice crying in the wilderness,” said Beliczky, who started his hygiene career in 1950 as a consultant and researcher. He later served 22 years as director of industrial hygiene and safety for the United Rubber Workers.

There were compelling reasons for the emphasis on safety, not health, hazards in the 1950s. An on-the-job death toll of 13,000-16,000 workers annually became morally unacceptable and financially damaging. A December 1951 coal mine explosion in West Frankfort, Ill., killed 119 miners. In 1956, New York “declared war on the $750 million annual toll of occupational injuries and deaths.” Industrial fires were also a huge problem, with annual losses estimated at $175 million.

By the end of the 1950s, “A lot of good was done,” said Fred Manuele, president of Hazards Limited, Arlington Heights, Ill., who started in the field in the late 1940s. “We finally put a stop to exploding boilers, elevators falling and buildings collapsing.”

Managing Safety

The 1950s brought a higher level of management thinking to the safety movement. Occupational Hazards articles offered insight on:

“How to Sell Safety Upstairs”: Tell management what the present situation is, why it is worth improving, what should be done and how much it will cost.

What Happens When a Safety Program Is Cut Back: Five- and tenfold increases in accidents demonstrated the importance of having a “constant safety program.”

“How Well Is Your Safety Program Doing?”: This 1955 article said that “statistics aren't always what they seem” because of how different groups define and count injuries.

By the late '50s, there was a feeling that the safety field had become too comfortable with its successes in reducing deaths and traumatic injuries.

Decade of the 50's

1949-1958
TIMELINE

1950: President Truman decides to develop H-bomb

1951: Sen. Hubert Humphrey proposes federal job safety law

1955: McDonald's opens its first hamburger stand

1957: Soviet Union lauches Sputnik

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