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How Workplace Safety Has Evolved in the United States

Updated: Jul 15

Improvements in technology and more government regulation have enhanced workplace safety over the past 50 years, although there is still far more needed to protect workers. Now, workplace injuries are tracked, and government regulation enforces safety standards. However, even one workplace fatality is too much.

Workplace Standards and Enforcement Have Improved Safety

Before 1971, work injuries and fatalities were unfortunately too common, and the federal government did not even have an accurate picture of the extent of the problem. That was the year that the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) was started. This agency soon began writing and enforcing safety rules to protect works. OSHA also began to compile statistics on the number and type of workplace injuries to know where new regulations were needed.

OSHA is given credit for much of the drop in workplace fatalities. In the past half-century, workplace fatalities have fallen by almost two-thirds. Many of the criticisms of OSHA these days center on the fact that people want even more regulation.

Changes in Technology Have Reduced Injuries and Fatalities

In addition, workplace technology has also reduced the number of dangerous functions that employees must perform on the job. Robotics have replaced many manual processes, allowing employees to operate a machine as opposed to putting themselves directly in danger. Robot arms and welding machines have replaced particularly dangerous tasks. They also reduce injuries by performing repetitive functions that cause workplace injuries. Still, robotics and machines could pose their own dangers when they malfunction.

In general, there has been more of a focus on repetitive motion injuries and a greater recognition that these can cause serious long-term injuries. Roughly 1 in 50 U.S. workers suffer from a repetitive motion injury. Office employees who work with computers are more likely to be hurt. Now, employees see the dangers of this injury, and many have policies and procedures to help prevent them. Companies have begun to focus more on ergonomics to improve health and safety.

Technology has also helped reduced deaths and injuries in other ways. Now, employers are better able to monitor workplace conditions. They can track things such as air quality in the workplace, and they may also know faster about breakdowns and problems with machinery. In addition, things such as wearable devices help employers monitor the conditions that individual employees are facing on the job.

Different Job Functions Have Changed Safety Procedures

Another reason why workplace safety has evolved is that the composition of the workforce has changed. While manufacturing workers still need to be kept safe, employers need to account for the wide range of job functions that technology requires them to perform. They need to have a culture with a focus on safety. Then, they could drill down on individual areas where they need to protect employees.

Further, employers are now forced to focus on health and work conditions as much as they need to emphasize accident avoidance. The COVID-19 pandemic spotlighted the fact that many companies did not have any measures in place to protect against mass illnesses. Millions of workers were sickened on the job because companies could not or would not act to keep them safe. In the future, workplace safety policies will be broadened as a result of lessons learned from COVID-19. One can count on numerous changes to OSHA rules in the aftermath.

Companies Now View Environment as Part of Safety

Beyond illnesses, environmental issues have also moved to the forefront as there is a growing awareness of how chemicals and toxins have sickened employees. Research has increasingly tied workplace conditions to diseases like Parkinson's. Companies are now realizing that they must safeguard the air that employees breathe and keep them from becoming exposed to hazardous substances. Of course, they must still protect against physical accidents that could injure employees.

In some ways, the rising costs of workers' compensation insurance and an increase in litigation has also forced companies to make the necessary changes that protect employees. They do not want to be forced to pay premium increases that go along with injuries, nor do they want to be facing government enforcement action. Therefore, they focus on safety as a means to protect their own bottom line. Many companies are adopting a safety culture because it helps their own productivity and profits. Employee safety reduces things like time missed from work. Either way, workers are benefiting since it reduces their chances of getting killed or injured on the job.

Nonetheless, as the pandemic has shown, there are still many companies that prioritize profits over safety. Accordingly, there will still be employees hurt on the job.

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