Seven Decades of Safety: Fighting Two Wars

Oct. 1, 2008
It was the known as the king of occupational diseases, said Gerald Markowitz, a professor of history at John Jay College in New York. In the mid-1930s,

It was the known as the “king of occupational diseases,” said Gerald Markowitz, a professor of history at John Jay College in New York. In the mid-1930s, Congress held hearings on the problem, and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins declared war on it. “Silicosis became as well-known in the 1930s as asbestos is today,” said Markowitz,.

Public outrage was galvanized by the Hawk's Nest tragedy. A subsidiary of Union Carbide was given the job of drilling a tunnel through a mountain in the Hawk's Nest area near Gauley Bridge, W.Va. The mountain's rock had a very high silica content. Workers spent 8 to 10 hours a day breathing the silica dust without any respiratory protection. The same was not true for company engineers, said Markowitz, who wore respirators when going in the tunnel to direct the project.

Hundreds of workers died on the tunnel project from silicosis. Moreover, Markowitz said, “The company hired undertakers to bury workers in the fields nearby. When families would inquire about what had happened to the workers, the company would tell them that they simply had moved on.”

In 1935, companies in the “dusty trades” formed the Air Hygiene Foundation. The group supported research on the disease, and sought to develop workplace standards, conduct research and develop workplace standards.

Silica exposure was reduced, Markowitz emphasizes, but it was not eliminated. As late as 1996, then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich began a national public education campaign — “If It's Silica, It's Not Just Dust” — in an attempt to finally end this disease.

Safety and War Needs

Signs of impending conflict darkened the European continent throughout 1938. Before the first bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, America was providing weapons to the Allies. Wartime demands accounted for the greatest manufacturing output the industrial world had seen. As the United States entered the World War II, workers produced tanks, guns and bullets to the European allies and our own troops.

In 1940, the National Committee for the Conservation of Manpower in Defense Industries rapidly swung into action with its program for the prevention of industrial accidents and occupational illness among plants engaged in defense production work.

By the later part of 1941, it was estimated that the manufacturing industries most closely related to the defense program would employ 6,859,000 workers, most of whom would be “rusty” and would need to be trained, oriented and taught to work safely.

In the May 1942 issue of Occuaptional Hazards, Channing R. Dooley, chair of the Training-Within-Industry Branch of WPB, said if safety were handled as an afterthought, the employee would consider it apart from his regular duties. “Safety is not just a humane attitude — it is fundamental in getting out maximum war production,” said Dooley.

For years, industry was a man's world. However, 4 million women came forward to fill the production void. The health and safety of women workers was considered very important in these times.

As women entered the industrial work force, industry adapted to provide them with protective equipment such as shoes, gloves and head protection specially made for women.

As the war drew to a close, many safety professionals speculated on what would happen when the boys came home. Jack Kidney, safety director of Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., commented in the April 1945 issue of Occupational Hazards that safety campaigns after the war would be “greatly aided by the developments of wartime production. The utilization of fluorescent paints, electric eyes, air conditioning units and other health and safety factors brought out by the stress of war will be continued in the postwar years.”

Decade of the 40s'


1938: National minimum wage is 25 cents an hour

1945: Allied forces defeat Nazi Germany

1947: Taft-Hartley Act curbs union power

1948: The transistor is invented at Bell Laboratories

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