Safety problems in work settings range from immediate threats like toxic substances and grievous bodily injuries to subtle, progressive dangers such as repetitive motion injuries, high noise levels, and air quality. In general, workplace hazards can be categorized into three groups:

  1. Chemical hazards, in which the body absorbs toxins.
  2. Ergonomic hazards, in which the body is strained or injured, often over an extended period, because of the nature (design) of the task, its frequency, or intensity.
  3. Physical hazards, in which the worker is exposed to harmful elements or physical dangers, such as heat or moving parts.

In many cases companies are not only ethically bound to ensure the safety of their workers-against all such hazards, but also legally and financially liable to do so. In most industrial settings safety precautions are highly regulated by federal and state agencies, a compliance regime that many business leaders resent. The stiff regulatory burden in part reflects the complex and serious nature of safety issues. Some believe that smaller companies, in particular, would have a hard time staying abreast of the myriad safety issues if not for legal requirements, which, according to the theory, educate employers about work hazards. However, the labyrinth of safety laws and regulations has also risen in response to the historical pattern of corporate resistance in adopting comprehensive, proactive safety policies and in providing adequate compensation once an injury has occurred. There is a marked tendency for businesses to do as little as possible in these areas until prodded by laws or organized labor.

Thus, the issue of industrial safety has evolved concurrently with industrial development in the United States. Two events were most important: the passage of workers' compensation laws at the start of the 20th century, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act, enacted in 1970. Over time, the issue of industrial safety has been marked by a shift from compensation to prevention as well as toward an increasing emphasis on addressing the long-term effects of occupational hazards.

In the modern context, corporate management increasingly has viewed industrial safety measures as an investment—one that may save money in the long run by way of reducing disability pay, improving productivity, and avoiding lawsuits. This approach lends itself to greater professionalization of safety management, instead of rote compliance, and to more proactive policies. Rather than viewing an injury as a fluke or a random mistake, management today is more likely to look for systemic problems, such as:

Table 1 Components of a Safety Program
Table 1
Components of a Safety Program

The following are techniques and policy areas identified by the National Safety Council in its publication 14 Elements of a Successful Safety & Health Program .
  1. Hazard recognition, evaluation, and control
  2. Workplace design and engineering
  3. Safety performance management
  4. Regulatory compliance management
  5. Occupational health
  6. Information collection
  7. Employee involvement
  8. Motivation, behavior, and attitudes
  9. Training and orientation
  10. Organizational communications
  11. Management and control of external exposures
  12. Environmental management
  13. Workplace planning and staffing
  14. Assessments, audits, and evaluations



According to figures compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1997 there were 7.1 workplace injuries and illnesses for every 100 full-time workers, corresponding to a total of 6.1 million incidents in the private sector. Injuries constitute more than 90 percent of these cases, as workplace-induced illnesses are relatively rare. The overall injury/illness rate was down by about 15 percent from levels in the early 1990s. Indeed, the 1997 level was the lowest ever recorded.

The most common non-lethal occupational hazard is by far repetitive motion. Repetitive motion injuries are caused by tasks such as typing and repetitive use of tools. In 1997, these accounted for nearly two-thirds of all reported workplace injuries in the private sector. Skin disorders were second, representing 13.4 percent of all injuries. They included rashes, boils, inflammations, and hives, among other ailments. Other major injury categories included respiratory conditions and other illnesses brought on by exposure to toxins, such as digestive disorders. Just under half of all such illnesses and injuries result in lost work time.


In a typical year in the 1990s there were also more than 6,000 fatalities in U.S. workplaces. The rate of work-related deaths has declined significantly over time. The death rate in 1980 was a tenth of that in 1910; from 1974 to 1994 alone the rate fell by 50 percent. In 1997, some 40 percent of the 6,218 deaths were caused by transportation equipment, mostly due to vehicle collisions. Other leading causes of workplace fatalities include worksite violence (most often in the course of a robbery or other crime), being accidentally struck by an object, machine-related accidents, falls, and exposure to deadly substances and environments (e.g., poisons, oxygen shortage, electrical shock, fire). Perhaps contrary to general perceptions, a large percentage of all occupational fatalities occur at small companies.


While workplace injuries are most commonly associated with private industry, even the federal government is not immune workplace hazards. In fiscal 1998, 152,053 workplace injuries and illnesses and 146 deaths were reported. Among the most dangerous federal agencies were defense-related departments, the prison system, the Food Safety Inspection Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and the U.S. Postal Service. (OSHA had a somewhat below average rate of workplace injuries.)


Many of the important developments in promoting industrial safety were initially implemented at the state level. Massachusetts, then the leading textile production center in the United States, was the first state to introduce industrial safety measures. It introduced factory inspection in 1867, established the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 1869 to study factory accidents, and enacted the first legislation requiring protective guards over dangerous machinery in 1877.

These measures resulted from demands made by the labor movement. Another key demand was for workers' compensation. Prior to the late 19th century, the courts consistently favored employers in cases in which workers attempted to gain compensation for injuries occurring in the workplace. The defenses used on behalf of employers were that the employee assumed the risk of employment by accepting the job and that either the injured worker's or a fellow worker's negligence was responsible for an accident. The principles behind these defenses were referred to as assumption of risk, contributory negligence, and the fellow servant rule.

By the late 19th century, a number of states enacted employer's liability acts, for which courts made awards to injured workers or their survivors on the finding of employer negligence. Yet these acts still required litigation, a practice that was often costly and time-consuming for both employers and employees, and fewer than 30 percent of industrial accidents in the United States were compensated prior to workers' compensation legislation. Workers' compensation was first developed in the 19th century under the German chancellor Otto von Bismarck. The German system compensated workers on a no-fault basis. The system spread to most other European countries by the turn of the century. The first workmen's compensation legislation in the United States was enacted in 1908, but covered only certain federal employees and provided low benefits. New Jersey passed the first state-level workers' compensation legislation in 1911, and many other states shortly followed suit. The last state to enact workers' compensation legislation was Mississippi in 1948.

Workers' compensation laws vary widely from state to state but have key objectives in common. Employers are required to compensate for work-related injuries or sickness by paying medical expenses, disability benefits, and compensation for lost work time. Workers are barred, on the other hand, from suing their employers in most cases, protecting employers from large liability settlements. In his Industrial Safety: Management and Technology, David Colling writes that, "Workmen's compensation laws have done more to promote safety than all other measures collectively, because employers found it more cost-effective to concentrate on safety than to compensate employees for injury or loss of life."

As employers came to rely on insurance companies to protect them from the costs of workers' compensation, insurers came to be increasingly involved in promoting industrial safety programs and researching industrial safety issues. The right of organized labor to negotiate with management was vindicated by the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (the Wagner Act), and a number of improvements in company safety programs followed in its wake.


One of the key developments in industrial safety legislation was the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. The Act was the first comprehensive, industrial safety legislation passed at the federal level and passed nearly unanimously through both houses of Congress. One of the factors contributing to strong support for the act was the rise in the number of work-related fatalities in the 1960s and particularly the Farmington, West Virginia mine disaster of 1968, in which 78 miners were killed. The distinguishing characteristic of the act was its emphasis on the prevention of rather than compensation for industrial accidents and illnesses. The act provided for the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Among the key provisions of the act were the development of mandatory safety and health standards, the enforcement of these standards, and standardized record-keeping and reporting procedures.


Among the types of OSHA regulations are safety standards, designed to prevent accidents, and health standards, designed to protect against exposure to toxins and to address the more long-term effects of occupational hazards. So-called "horizontal" standards apply to all industries whereas "vertical" standards apply to specific industries or occupations. Some of OSHA's standards were adopted from private national organizations, such as the American National Standards Institute, the National Fire Protection Association, and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Other standards are developed by OSHA itself, often based on recommendations from NIOSH.

Prior to their being issued, OSHA must publish the proposed standards, after which the public has 30 days to respond. In the case of objections to proposed standards, OSHA holds public hearings to determine whether the standard should be issued or withdrawn. Court rulings upheld OSHA's enforcement of standards through surprise inspections. Given the high ratio of workplaces to OSHA inspectors, however, the agency often is compelled to inspect worksites after an accident has occurred. A program of voluntary compliance was also developed in which employers invite OSHA inspectors to provide assistance in identifying and correcting violations of standards.

Right-to-know laws were an important development in industrial safety legislation. The first of these laws was OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard, enacted in 1983. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is also engaged in the administration of right-to-know laws as a result of the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986. Right-to-know laws require that dangerous materials in the workplace be identified and that workers be informed of these dangers as well as trained in their safe use.


In fiscal 1998, OSHA conducted some 34,442 inspections of U.S. companies. In addition, state agencies performed 55,699 workplace inspections. More than three-quarters of federal inspections were done at construction and manufacturing sites. OSHA inspections uncovered 76,980 violations, or an average of 2.2 violations per inspection. Of these, two-thirds were classified as serious. Total penalties levied by OSHA that year surpassed $79 million.


OSHA's effectiveness in reducing industrial injury and illness has been debated since its earliest years. There was a 27 percent decline in the actual number of workplace fatalities from 1974 to 1986 and a 40 percent decline in the rate of fatalities over these same years. However, in his Cooperation and Conflict in Occupational Safety and Health, Richard Wokutch cites several studies that argue that these declines are not readily attributable to OSHA's actions. Consistent with the anti-regulatory agenda of the Reagan administration, OSHA suffered substantial cutbacks in the 1980s. In the budget for fiscal year 1982, OSHA funding fell to $195 million, down from $205 million in fiscal year 1981, and the number of funded positions was reduced by 19 percent. During the 1990s OSHA's budget was restored under the Clinton administration; by 1999 it was at $350 million a year, supporting a staff of 2,200.


One of the important aspects of industrial safety programs is the identification of hazards. Managers typically determine hazards by the examination of accident records, interviews with engineers and equipment operators, and the advice of safety specialists, such as OSHA or insurance companies.

Approximately one-fourth of workers' compensation claims result from the handling of materials, including not only manual handling, but also semi-automated handling and material handling with powered equipment, such as forklifts. Fully 80 percent of injuries resulting from the handling of materials are injuries to the lower back. Most back injuries result not from a single incident, but from prolonged repetition. The development of automatic palletizing machinery has eliminated one of the tasks most responsible for causing lower back injury.

Based on a NIOSH study, the Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation undertook a safety program for forklift operators. One of Kaiser's and NIOSH's findings was that most forklift accidents occurred when operators were backing up. After identifying this hazard, Kaiser developed an operating procedure that required a redesign of the exhaust systems on their propane-fueled forklifts, such that forklift operators could improve their visibility when backing up without breathing in exhaust.

About one-tenth of industrial accidents result from operating machinery, and these accidents often result in severe injury. Among the most dangerous types of machinery are power presses and woodworking tools, which most commonly cause injury to the hands. A number of mechanisms have been developed to safeguard against such injuries. The simplest of these are barrier guards, in which the moving parts of machinery are enclosed in a protective housing. These safeguards are typically used in conjunction with sensors so that the machine cannot be operated without them. Other types of safeguards include those that prevent a machine from operating unless a worker has both hands properly in place, automated material feeding devices, warning labels, and color coding.

Table 1 lists a more comprehensive set of policy areas and management practices for a safety program, as published by the National Safety Council, a broad-based safety advocacy organization.

SEE ALSO : Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation & Liability Act (CERCLA) of 1980 (Superfund)

[ David Kucera ]


Colling, David A. Industrial Safety: Management and Technology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Hantula, Donald A., and Susan M. Hilbert. "Safety Isn't Simple." Academy of Management Executive 11, no. 2 (1997).

Kohn, James P., Mark A. Friend, and Celeste A. Winterberger. Fundamentals of Occupational Safety and Health. Rockville, MD: Government Institutes, 1996.

Mansdorf, S.Z. Complete Manual of Industrial Safety. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993.

Marsh, Barbara. "Workers at Risk: Chance of Getting Hurt is Generally Far Higher at Small Companies." Wall Street Journal, 3 February 1994.

National Safety Council. 14 Elements of a Successful Safety and Health Program. Itasca, IL, 1998. Available from .

Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA Home Page. Washington, 1999. Available from .

Wokutch, Richard E. Cooperation and Conflict in Occupational Safety and Health: A Multination Study of the Automotive Industry. New York: Praeger, 1990.

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