The issue of industrial safety evolved concurrently with industrial development in the United States. Of central importance was the establishment of protective legislation, most significantly the worker's compensation laws, enacted at the start of the twentieth century, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act, enacted in 1970. The issue of industrial safety was marked by a shift from compensation to prevention as well as toward an increasing emphasis on addressing the long-term effects of occupational hazards. This emphasis was helped along by insurance companies who, in order to protect themselves from workers' compensation expenses, found that it made good business sense for them to promote industrial safety programs and research industrial safety issues. Today, industrial safety is widely regarded as one of the most important factors that any business, large or small, must consider in its operations.

Worker's compensation laws vary widely from state to state but have key objectives in common. Employers are required to compensate employees for work-related injuries or sickness by paying medical expenses, disability benefits, and compensation for lost work time. In return, workers are barred in many instances from suing their employers, a provision that protects employers from large liability settlements (of course, employers may still be found liable in instances where they are found guilty of neglect or other legal violations). In his Industrial Safety: Management and Technology, David Colling contended 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."


One of the key developments in industrial safety legislation was the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. The Act, which was the first comprehensive industrial safety legislation passed at the federal level, 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 Occupational Safety and Health Act was distinguished by its emphasis on the prevention of—rather than compensation for—industrial accidents and illnesses. The legislation 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 for businesses.

OSHA issues regulations governing a wide range of worker safety areas, all intended to meet OSHA's overriding principle that "each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his [or her] employees." OSHA regulations include both 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.

When OSHA drafts a proposal for a permanent standard, it first consults with industry and labor representatives and collects whatever scientific, medical, and engineering data is necessary to ensure that the standard adequately reflects workplace realities. Proposed standards are published in the Federal Register . A comment period is then held, during which input is received from interested parties including, but not limited to, representatives of industry and labor. At the close of the comment period, the proposal may be withdrawn and set aside, withdrawn and re-proposed with modifications, or approved as a final standard that is legally enforceable. All standards that become legally binding are first published in the Federal Register and then compiled and published in the Code of Federal Regulations . The cause of industrial safety has also been reinforced by the passage of significant "right-to-know" laws. 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 addition to federal worker health and safety laws, individual states are permitted to develop and operate their own job safety and health programs. If the state can show that its job safety and health standards are "at least as effective as" comparable federal standards, the state can be certified to assume OSH Act administration and enforcement in that state. OSHA approves and monitors state plans, and provides up to 50 percent of operating costs for approved plans.


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. Industrial health hazards are typically categorized into three classes: chemical hazards, in which the body absorbs toxins; ergonomic hazards, such as those resulting from improper lifting or repetitive stress; and physical hazards, in which the worker is exposed to temperature extremes, atmospheric pressure, dangerous conditions, or excessive noise.

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 which prevent a machine from operating unless a worker has both hands properly in place, automated material feeding devices, warning labels, and color coding.

Toxins are most commonly ingested through inhalation, and the most commonly inhaled substances are dust, fumes, and smoke. Toxins are also commonly absorbed through the skin, and this is a bigger problem than many business owners and managers realize. Indeed, some studies indicate that skin disorders result in approximately 200,000 lost working days each year. The most common of these disorders is dermatitis, which is particularly problematic in the food preparation and chemical industries.

Among the most commonly-used toxins are industrial solvents. The toxicity of solvents varies widely by type, but the most toxic of these are carcinogens and can cause permanent damage to the nervous system through prolonged occupational overexposure. In addition, organic solvents, such as those made from petroleum, are often highly flammable. Tightly-fitted respirators with activated charcoal filters are used to protect against inhalation of organic solvents, particularly in spraying applications in which solvents are atomized. Ventilation systems comprised of fans and ducts are also used to control airborne toxins of all types. Rubber gloves are commonly used to prevent skin absorption of organic solvents.

One of the most rapidly-growing types of reported occupational injury is what the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics refers to as "disorders associated with repeated trauma." These conditions result from repeatedly performing the same tasks over a prolonged period of time.


All companies, including small businesses, are required to keep records on various aspects of their operations that are relevant to employee safety and health. All employers covered by the OSH Act are required to keep records regarding enforcement of OSHA standards; research records; job-related injury, illness, and death records; and job hazard records.

But while small businesses must adhere to many of the same regulations that govern the operations of larger companies, there also are several federal industrial safety programs available exclusively to smaller business enterprises, and OSHA and state regulatory agencies both enjoy some discretion in adjusting penalties for industrial safety violations for small companies. For example, OSHA has discretion to grant monetary penalty reductions of up to 60 percent for businesses that qualify as small firms. It also gives smaller firms greater flexibility in certain safety areas (i.e., lead in construction, emergency evacuation plans, process safety management) in recognition of their limited resources, and provides grants to non-profit groups with explicit mandates of addressing safety and health issues in small business settings.


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

Karr, Al. "Behavior-Based Safety: Is It the Holy Grail of the Workplace?" Safety and Health. March 2000.

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

Stenzel, Paulette L. "Right to Act: Advancing the Common Interests of Labor and Environmentalists," Albany Law Review. Vol. 57, no. 1, 1993.

Willen, Janet. "Safety Incentive Programs: Problem Solver or Troublemaker?" Safety and Health. September 2000.

Yohay, Stephen C. "Recent Court Decisions on Important OSHA Enforcement Issues." Employee Relations Law Journal. Spring 1997.

SEE ALSO: Occupational Safety and Health Administration ; Workplace Safety

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