Today, millions of people return home from work safely due, in part, to the unflagging commitment of the occupational safety, health and environmental practitioners who work to identify hazards and implement safety advances in all industries and at all workplaces. And for the last 100 years, the Des Plaines, Ill.-based American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE), the nation's oldest safety society, has been a part of that noble cause.
The seed that eventually would grow into the present-day ASSE was planted March 25, 1911, a tragic day in the nation's history. On that date, a catastrophic fire consumed the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, which was housed in the Asch building in New York City. Many workers were trapped behind locked doors. The doors that were not locked opened inward and were held shut by the rush of employees desperately trying to escape the fire.
At the time, the only safety measures available for the workers were 27 buckets of water and a flimsy fire escape that ultimately collapsed. Factory workers waiting for help at the windows watched helplessly as firefighters discovered their ladders were too short to reach the stranded employees. The water from the hoses also could not reach the top floors.
In all, 146 garment workers died that day in the fire — many in the factory and many who jumped from the ninth floor to avoid burning alive. Many of the victims were women and young girls.
While the tragedy caused a public outrage, no regulations that could have saved these workers' lives existed at the time. The fire did lead to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and the Women's Trade Union League. Frances Perkins, the first female cabinet member and Secretary of Labor, began her commitment to workplace safety and health soon after witnessing the tragic 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.
THE BIRTH OF ASSE
Out of the ashes also rose what would eventually become the modern-day ASSE. In a response to this tragedy, the organization was founded Oct. 14, 1911, in New York City as the United Society of Casualty Inspectors (USCI) with 62 members. In 1914, the USCI name changed to the present American Society of Safety Engineers and its headquarters were established in New York City.
Over time, more states passed workers' compensation laws, insurance companies hired additional inspectors and information about ASSE spread by word of mouth. As the EHS profession grew over the decades, so too did the practitioners' commitment to increasing public awareness of occupational safety, health and environmental issues and their impact on quality of life.
This timeline highlights important milestones in ASSE's history and occupational safety in general:
1917: America's entrance into the war diminishes ASSE's membership as many workers entered the armed forces.
1918: The end of World War I, the post-war depression and a lack of safety jobs in insurance or war industries almost causes the dissolution of ASSE.
1919: ASSE publishes Safety Engineering, its first official publication, and begins to grow as a national organization.
1924: The Engineering Section of the National Safety Council (NSC) merges with ASSE and national headquarters relocate to Chicago. At that time, the first respirators replace handkerchiefs as protection for workers in chemical plants. The first ASSE chapters in Boston and metropolitan New York are created.
1936: The federal government passes the Walsh-Healey Act, which applies the first standards for safety and health to firms that had business with the government.
1937: ASSE becomes involved in industrial standards development.
1940: ASSE now has 2,000 members in 11 chapters and develops data sheets, pamphlets and safety training materials. Research into plastic eye protection, safety belts, harnesses and accessories accelerate, while at the same time the cost of workplace accidents rise.
1942: ASSE membership reaches 2,459. While the war once again takes people out of the workplace and into the military, others join the EHS profession because of the Walsh-Healey requirements on private business.
1947: ASSE reestablishes itself as an independent organization separate from NSC. ASSE participates in standards development and President Harry Truman's Special Commission on Safety and Health. The G.I. Bill provides educational opportunities for former servicemen and many enter the occupational safety and health profession. Companies begin to emphasize safety training for all employees.
1949: ASSE holds its first elections. Membership reaches almost 4,000.
1956: The Journal of the American Society of Safety Engineers is introduced as a quarterly supplement to the National Safety News. It becomes an independent monthly publication in 1961.
1958: ASSE conducts research with the Air Force, which leads to advances in fall protection belts and harnesses that later are realized in American National Standards.
1964: ASSE assists in the revision of the Walsh-Healey Act. A heavy emphasis on education for safety professionals begins. Systems safety management emerges with the advent of the U.S. space program and ASSE membership climbs to 8,000.
1967: ASSE headquarters move to Park Ridge, Ill., a Chicago suburb.
1968: ASSE backs the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act, which passes in 1970 and creates both OSHA and the National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health (NIOSH).
1969: Nine leading professionals representing a cross-section of safety specialists become the initial directors of a new organization, the Board of Certified Safety Professionals (BCSP). Today, the Certified Safety Professional (CSP) designation has become the mark of the professional within the safety field.
1971: President Richard Nixon appoints three ASSE members to various OSHA positions, including the Assistant Secretary of Labor. Membership grows to over 10,000.
1974: ASSE's journal expands and is renamed Professional Safety.
1979: ASSE now boasts more than 100 chapters, a membership of 15,500 and a budget of over $1 million.
1985: ASSE's headquarters are relocated to the present location in Des Plaines, Ill., and divisions in transportation, international and health are created to address specialized technical interests.
1990: The ASSE Foundation, which advances occupational safety, health and environmental development, research and education by funding scholarships, fellowships, research grants and internships, is established. ASSE membership now totals 24,000 in 128 chapters.
1996: A restructure proposal creates a streamlined organization to respond rapidly to changing member needs.
1999: ASSE establishes the Professional Safety Academy (PSA) to offer a higher level of career support to ASSE members and the profession. The program includes an annual Professional Development Conference and Exposition, as well as other workshops and seminars held across the country.
2000: ASSE and the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering (CSSE) begin promoting the North American Occupational Safety and Health (NAOSH) Week to raise awareness of the importance of workplace safety.
2011: ASSE represents more than 32,000 EHS practitioners in 151 chapters, 35 sections and 60 student sections.
One hundred years after ASSE got its start in response to a workplace tragedy, it has grown to include thousands members who are are at the forefront of safety engineering, design, standards development, management and education in virtually every industry, governmental agency, labor and institutions of higher education. International ASSE members can be found in 75 countries including Mexico, Ecuador, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Australia, Kuwait and Egypt.
From a cost standpoint, every year, according to OSHA, workplace injuries, illnesses and deaths cost the nation about $170 billion. ASSE President-elect Terri S. Norris, CSP, ARM, notes that for every dollar invested in a safety and health program, $4-6 are saved because injuries, illnesses and fatalities decline, medical costs decrease and workers' compensation costs go down. Soft costs related to reduced absenteeism, lower turnover, higher productivity and increased employee morale also are saved.
“It is vital today, and many companies are beginning to understand from both a business and humane perspective, that safety is good business and how a mistake can not only take lives, hurt families and the environment, it can destroy a company's positive reputation worldwide — in the blink of an eye,” says Norris.
Things have changed from a century ago with the help of safety professionals, the health, engineering and scientific communities, regulators, the labor movement, government, international safety societies and the insurance and risk management groups, she adds.
“But despite the growth of safety awareness over the past decades, workplace catastrophes have occurred, such as the Idaho Falls nuclear reactor accident in 1961; the Imperial Foods Chicken Plant fire in 1991 in North Carolina; 9/11; the Bhopal gas leak disaster in 1984; the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion on April 5, 2010, that killed 25 coal miners; and the Deep Water Horizon Gulf Oil explosion killing 11 workers last April,” Norris says.
In other words, the work of ASSE and safety professionals never ends.
However, through training, education, developing and implementing effective safety programs or simply reinforcing the rules, tragedy can be prevented…