The History of Safety: Gaining New Perspectives for the Future

June 15, 2022 • Previsor

Centuries of safety history have taught us how to keep people safe on the job. We create new safety rules. Employees are equipped with better gear. Smoother processes are put in place. However, the road to safer workplaces has been a long one. It begins in a place where health and safety weren’t always priorities. How far has the past brought us? And where will the future lead?

On this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast, join us for a peek into the past and a look into the future of safety. We’re joined by Rod Courtney, the Health, Safety and Environmental Manager at Ampirical. He leads large-scale operations to align business environments with safety standards. Courtney was also a keynote speaker at the 2021 Safety Leadership Conference, and is passionate about his work.

“Without a doubt, this is what I was meant to do,” he shared. “I don’t go to work a single day of my life. I thoroughly enjoy what I do I enjoy, you know, coaching and mentoring new safety professionals.”

First, we’ll share a brief overview of the history of safety. Then, we’ll discuss the current approach to workplace safety. Finally, we’ll explain what Courtney sees as the way forward to safer workplaces – and reduced fatalities.

Listen to this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast, or read the show notes below.

A brief history of safety

The earliest accounts of workplace safety begin around 1760. Before the Industrial Revolution, people bartered for goods. Factories would change this way of life. New jobs meant the opportunity to earn money for adults and children, which could be spent in an increasing number of ways.

However, factory working conditions were unsafe. There were few rules or standards. Children as young as four years old helped fix machines, or were even put inside them. As a result, they were often killed or suffered severe injuries. These conditions are hard to imagine today. But they were commonplace just a few centuries ago.

By the early 1800s, factory workers had enough. Several decades had passed with little change. The year 1802 brought some progress. Laws introduced simple safety regulations. For example, having enough windows to circulate air, and cleaning the floor a few times a year. A successful movement by employees introduced a limited number of factory inspectors. “It was very basic stuff, but at the time, it was groundbreaking,” Courtney explained.

Major safety history milestones

In 1837, a landmark legal case introduced the idea of employer responsibility. Two years early, a man named Charles Priestly had been injured on the job. The wagon he was riding in was overloaded, and consequently, overturned. Priestly was seriously injured. He stayed in a nearby hotel while he recovered, which cost him $60 – over $1,800 today.

Priestly sued his employer, and won twice the amount he paid. The case would eventually be appealed. But it did set the wheel of employer responsibility – and more small changes – in motion.

The 1880 Employers Liability Act, created in the United Kingdom, would be the beginning of work comp. Employees and their families were now entitled to money if an injury occurred due to faulty equipment or negligence. From that point on, interest in health and safety on the job began to flourish.

Safety regulation: An uneasy transition

With the creation of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) in 1971, real safety guidance began to take shape. However, employers were resistant. Safety regulations cost money to follow. Further, they could be fined if they didn’t. Courtney compares the reaction to that of the COVID-19 vaccines; there was strong support in some areas, and strong opposition in others.

As a result, many employers pressed employees to do two things. “It was basically, ‘Hey, don’t tell on us and don’t get killed’,” Courtney added. “That was the mentality. As long as you don’t get killed in there, as long as you don’t tell on us, you’re not going to get fired.” But this attitude wouldn’t stop progress. When the first fine was given out several years later, many industries realized OSHA was serious, and here to stay.

Shifting the paradigm

A system called behavior-based safety was introduced in the 1990s. It encourages employees to watch for unsafe behavior. Further, it was successful in reducing injuries. For instance, Courtney points to downwards trend in injuries like twisted ankles and pulled muscles. “It had to do with the fact that this was another way to engage people, right?,” Courtney explained. “To engage the workers, engage the supervision, get them engaged in talking about safety.” But unfortunately, it didn’t significantly impact fatalities – even up to the present day.

“We did great using behavior-based safety to lower the injuries. It didn’t really lower the fatalities, though,” he shared. “There are still roughly the same amount of people getting killed as there was 30 years ago. So, it’s in my opinion, here we are in the 2020s. It’s time for a paradigm shift. It’s time to change the way we view and do safety.”

3 ways to shift the paradigm

Employers can shift their workplace safety mindset by accounting for one main factor: energy. Safety research reveals that it’s the cause of many fatal accidents. Energy comes in many forms. For example, gravity, heat, chemical, pressure and electricity.

“It’s going to be some form of energy that causes that fatality,” Courtney expanded. “And we find out that more times than not, when a significant injury fatality occurs, it’s because that form of energy that caused it was not accounted for.” He encourages employers to account for energy by:

  • Asking the right questions. What steps are involved in a particular role? What are the hazards involved in each step? How can you mitigate those hazards?
  • Completing a year-end review. Take the time to look at each role at least once a year. Courtney refers employers to an image called an energy wheel. This helps guide the process.
  • Making incident reporting positive. Make sure that employees know to not only report incidents, but near misses. This info helps prevent future incidents.

Construction worker uses tape measure

Looking to the future

The road to safer workplaces has been a long one. Behavior-based safety helped reduce injuries. But it isn’t the ultimate solution. “It didn’t do what we thought it was going to do,” Courtney shared. “It hasn’t reduced fatalities at all, really. So what we use now, is called a human performance.”

Human performance is a forward-looking system, and the future of safety. The  approach focuses on one important concept. “The very first principle in human performance says that people are fallible and even the best make mistakes. How true is that?,” he asked. “We will never, ever stop it. It’s going to happen. It will happen today, it will happen tomorrow and every other day.”

Human performance accounts for errors – before they happen. It layers tools, data and processes on top of each other. Courtney compares it visually to slices of Swiss cheese. The more you stack them, the fewer holes there are to fall through. “We can actually build the process so that it allows our employees to fail safely.”

For free safety posters, sample policies, and safety toolkits, visit our Resource Library. Then, learn how to use information you collect from on-the-job incidents to increase workplace safety in this WorkSAFE Podcast episode.

June 15, 2022
Share this article