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A History of Safety: Key Moments That Shaped the Modern Workplace

by Matt on September 28, 2016

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Safer working environments are nothing new. Workers have been fighting for them since the Peasants’ Revolt in the Middle Ages. That’s when workers demanded better wages and improved working conditions. Today on the blog, we’re looking at the history of safety with the key moments and driving forces that shaped the modern workplace.


A Minefield of Dangers:

The invention of the steam pump in the 1700s lead to an increase in shaft mining. The pump made moving water from deep shafts possible. As steam engines became more efficient, fuel costs dropped and mines became more profitable.

Mines have a laundry list of obvious hazards:

  • Heavy industrial equipment
  • Collapsing beams
  • Rock falls
  • Floods

But perhaps most dangerous was the presence of methane or carbon monoxide in the mine. A canary in  a coal mine is not just an idiom, miners would bring caged canaries into the mine. Miners would be warned of deadly gases if the canary was found dead.

Where it gets really messy is that in the presence of these deadly gases, until 1911, the only viable option for light in a mine shaft was open-flamed candles. The motivation to finding a safer alternative happened on May 1, 1900.

Considered to be the worst mining accident at that point in American history, the Scofield Mine disaster killed over 200 workers from a dust explosion. Some miners died outright from the explosion, while other succumbed to a toxic mix of gases in the mine following it.

“George Edward Anderson photo, May 1, 1990. Photo courtesy of “


The biggest improvement for miner safety was the electric safety lamp, introduced in 1911 under the Coal Mines Act, which lead to the battery powered helmet lamp.

Though mining still carries risks, product innovation helped to reduce the hazards that were faced on a daily basis.


Labor Unions:

The rapid expansion of industrial society placed women, children and immigrants into the workforce in large numbers.

The Industrial Revolution, and desire to mass produce, turned the workplace into a carnival of horrors. The days were long, wages were low and work was generally unsafe.

On top of this, the British government outlawed unions and collective bargaining as early as the 14th century. Unions weren’t legalized until 1872 when the aim was shifted to benefit employers.

But this mentality towards unions wasn’t isolated to England. Until 1842, it was illegal for United States workers to unionize for wage increases, shortened work hours or to ensure employment.

Labor union membership has been on the decline since 1979. But there is no question that labor unions helped to reform working conditions, including the rule of eight.


The Rule of 8:

The use of child labor was common during the Industrial Revolution in Britain. The typical work day ranged from 10 to 16 hours, six days a week and rest on the seventh. The mentality at the time was that if it was good enough for God, it was good enough for men.

In 1817, Welsh social reformer Robert Owen proposed the rule of eight, coining the slogan: “Eight hours’ labor, Eight hours’ recreation, Eight hours’ rest.” Unfortunately, it was only men who received this option. Women and children were still expected to put in a “full day’s work” until 1847 when they were granted 10-hour workdays.

Even Ebenezer Scrooge thought that management style was a bit over the top.

“Hey Bob… Have a sixpence and give Tiny Tim the week off work…”

The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety cites studies that when “workers have slept for less than 5 hours before work or have been awake for more than 16 hours, their chance of making mistakes at work due to fatigue are significantly increased.”

The study goes as far as comparing the effects of sleep deprivation to being drunk. 21 hours without sleep is equivalent to a blood alcohol content of 0.08 (the legal limit in Canada). As of 2013, 52 countries recognize the Hours of Work (Industry) Convention, 1919 which upholds the principle of the 8-hour work day.

“No hangover, at least.”


Development of Safety Organizations:

It’s unfortunate but the major push for policy and reform typically comes after a tragedy as a way of stop it from happening again. Rather than implementing regulations as a preventative measure.

In March 1911, 146 garment workers died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan, New York. Considered one of the deadliest industrial disasters in the United States, the workers could not escape because the owner locked the doors to the stairwells as a way to prevent workers from taking unauthorized breaks.

Following that accident, the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) was created to set the standard for safety by working with the government on federal and state levels. Today, the ASSE has 153 chapters in 80 countries.

“Unknown Photographer, March 25, 1911. Photo courtesy of”


Looking Forward:

Even thought the workforce has steadily increased year over year, the number of workplace accidents is on the decline.

In 1970, an estimated 14,000 workers were killed on the job in the United States — about 38 per day. For 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this number fell to 4,500 or about 12 workers per day even though the workforce doubled in that time.

Since 1913, the toll of work-related deaths has fallen by 80 percent. The workplace has been transformed thanks to product innovations, safety associations and policy changes. Now an emphasis has been placed on lowering statistics and improving worker protection.

(Want actionable tips to keep your employees safe at work? Click below to read our 5 Tips to Reduce Hand Injuries Infographic)

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