As we log into our various learning software tools to author our own learning courses, preview microlearning videos or make data-driven decisions, it’s easy to forget there was once a time when safety training wasn’t regulated in the workplace. As James Baldwin once said, “If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.” For that reason, it’s worth knowing how past events have shaped what safety training looks like today and where it may be headed in the future.
The Industrial Revolution
The United States’ first safety and health legislation was passed in Massachusetts in 1877. The law mandated many of the safety precautions we now think of as standard, such as having adequate fire escapes and wearing equipment like hard hats and safety belts. By the end of the century, nine other states had followed suit and implemented regulations like factory safety inspections and restrictions on how hazardous equipment could be handled.
A little over a decade later, in 1911, the National Council for Industrial Safety, the ancestor of the current National Safety Council, was created in order to give U.S. decision-makers a better idea of the true state of workplace safety. The council found that an estimated 18,000 to 21,000 workers were the victims of fatal workplace injuries in 1912. To this day, statistics collected by the National Safety Council continue to impact decisions made in legislation.
Other government organizations, such as the Bureau of Labor, performed studies on other workplace dangers, including hazardous chemicals. As a result, the U.S. passed new laws were created that dictated safer ways for handling hazardous materials.
In 1970, responding to pressure from workers upset with dangerous workplace conditions, then-President Richard Nixon signed the bipartisan Williams-Steiger Occupational Safety and Health Act. This law created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), along with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
OSHA quickly got to work establishing standards for baseline safety and health protection for U.S. workers. Its first standard was limiting exposure to asbestos, which still protects many workers today. Construction safety standards followed, and OSHA continued to study and develop new regulations for safety.
The 2000s saw OSHA modernizing standards for a changing workplace; the steel erection standard was put in place, and OSHA began creating standards for more industries, especially health care. This decade also saw a few disasters that changed workplace safety, such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the deadly dust explosions at the Imperial Sugar Refinery in Port Wentworth, Georgia.
On top of those events, there was a series of oil disasters that drew OSHA’s focus between 2005 and 2010. An explosion at a BP refinery resulted in the death of 15 workers, and OSHA responded with the largest fines in its history and by increasing inspections in refineries across the United States.
In 2010, BP made headlines once again with a catastrophic explosion in its Deepwater Horizon oil rig that resulted in the death of 11 workers and an unprecedented oil spill. OSHA worked quickly to conduct over 4,000 site visits and alter standards accordingly.
Technology has revolutionized almost every facet of the American workplace, and safety training is no different. In fact, technology and increased accessibility to information has given rise to a new type of safety: cybersecurity.
Although internet safety largely exists outside of traditional safety training, the need for this training is growing rapidly. As more and more sensitive corporate documents are housed in cloud-based storage, it’s important that all employees understand valuable information about cybersecurity, such as how to create unique and complex passwords and where to store that information.
The fastest-growing industry in the United States is computer systems design and related services. Creating or investing in online safety training is a must for today’s organizations.
The Future of Safety Training
Data from Sageworks, a financial technology company, suggests that among the 10 fastest-growing sectors in the U.S., seven are in construction-related fields. Needless to say, the work that OSHA does to keep these growing industries safe is only going to grow in importance in the future. As new technologies fuel the rise of these industries, so, too, will the important safety technology and equipment protecting employees in their work.