History and Evolution of Construction Safety Regulations Thesis

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¶ … Evolution of Construction Safety Regulations

Author David L. Goetsch (who wrote Construction Safety and Health) -- along with several other authors and scholars -- present informative background into the area of construction safety -- and its evolvement as policy in the United States. This paper reviews the inadequate and sometimes non-existent workplace regulations that led to the development of more adequate rules and laws into the 20th Century.

The Need for Safety Regulations.

"Needless destruction of life and health is a moral evil. Failure to take necessary precautions against predicable accidents and occupational illnesses involves a moral responsibility for those accidents and occupational illnesses" (National Safety Council, MacCollum, 2006, p. 12).

To begin with, author David Goetsch describes the construction industry as "an umbrella concept" that covers a number of specialized crafts, professions and occupations (Goetsch, 2003, p. 2). Those include general contractor (single family and nonresidential); highway and street construction; bridge, tunnel, and elevated highways; plumbing, heating & air conditioning; painting, paperhanging & decorating; masonry, stonework & tile setting; plastering, drywall, & acoustical; carpeting & flooring; concrete work; structural steel erection; glass & glazing work; and wrecking & demolition (Goetsch, p. 2).

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Today, constructions jobs account for only five percent of the entire United States' workforce but construction jobs also account for "more than 17% of the deaths on the American workplace each year. That juxtaposition of percentages is just one statistical indication of how dangerous it is to work in construction.

Thesis on History and Evolution of Construction Safety Regulations Assignment

Goetsch points to the fact that up until the turn of the century (20th Century) local legislators and the U.S. Congress -- along with public opinion -- were pretty much in support of management and not the worker / laborer. In 1907 for example over 3,200 miners were killed in accidents; very few safety regulations were in place (or enforced) in that period of time,

The lack of regulatory measure in the construction industry led to some bleak statistics in the past, Goetsch continues. The death rate for workers on construction projects sixty years ago was over 12 deaths per 100,000; today it is about deaths per 100,000, according to the National Safety Council. That having been said, it is also true that one in seven construction workers is injured on the job each year.

Goetsch writes (p. 3) that the need for regulation is critical because the construction industry has changed dramatically over the years; technology has evolved and brought greater resources to the manager and worker. "Inanimate power" (electricity, hydraulics and pneumatics run the tools that do jobs, but on the other hand they make jobs dangerous); "machines" (forklifts for example lift, move, stack, and reduce back injuries, but they also cause injuries); "materials" (science has brought many new materials into the construction milieu but occasionally those materials -- like asbestos -- introduce new hazards); and "work specialization" (contractors now sub-contract out jobs like painters, electricians, roofers, etc., but that "decreases knowledge and understanding across fields" opening up the door for accidents "when a variety of specialists are working on the same job site" (Goetsch, pp. 3-4).

History of Safety Movement in Construction Work

"When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for [the] roof, so that you will not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone falls from it" (Deuteronomy Chapter 22) (Kovarik, 2003).

Of course the most prominent work safety legislation in the history of the United States is the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), passed and signed by the president in 1970. But there were many steps in terms of safety laws and regulations leading up to OSHA. Indeed, in reviewing the history of construction workplace safety issues Radford University professor Bill Kovarik goes back to ancient Greece and Rome (45-125 AD) and to the ruler Plutarch, who said it was not "just" to expose "non-criminals to the poisons oflead and mercury mines" (Kovarik, 2003, p. 1). Bernardino Ramazzini (1633-1714) was considered the "Father of Occupational Medicine," Kovarik writes; Ramazzini, a professor of medicine at the university of Modena, Italy, published a book (De Morbis Artificum Diatriba) which "examined the diseases and problems" that resulted from 52 occupations.

Health and medicine are among the many fields that Benjamin Franklin dabbled in, Kovarik explains; and Franklin was so concerned about lead poisoning in the printing trade workplace -- and in the distilling of rum in lead vessels -- that he published a health warning (which was not a regulation, but a bold move through a respected publication).

The safety movement had its roots in England, Goetsch writes (p. 5). The Industrial Revolution in Great Britain was a time of booming economies and plenty of jobs. It was also a time when child labor was being used indiscriminately in England -- and in the United States as well. Children as young as 9, 10, and into their low teens worked "hard" and Long" -- in "often unhealthy and unsafe" conditions, Goetsch explains.

And when an outbreak of fever hit working children in Manchester, England the public "began demanding better working conditions"; the community protests were effective enough to motivate the British Parliament to enact the "Health and Morals of Apprentices Act" in 1802 (Goetsch, p. 5). The author asserts that the British legislation "marked the beginning of government involvement in workplace safety." Kovarik explains that children "were beaten into working 16 hours a day in textile mills" and they became "stunted, diseased, deformed and degraded" (www.runet.edu). In the United States many writers and scholars had the "comfortable illusion" that "byssinosis" ("brown lung disease" resulting from cotton dust) was something that only England had to worry about (Kovarik, p. 4). However in the U.S. surveys revealed that from 12 to 30% of workers in textile plants suffered from brown lung, which resulted in the need for legislation.

In the United States between 1890 and 1920, there were workplace safety laws enacted in many states, but Kovarik claims "they were primarily cosmetic and sometimes struck down by reactionary courts" (Kovarik, p. 5). For example, a law in Illinois that limited the amount of hours a woman could work to eight was struck down by courts in 1895; and when employers violated weak laws they "were not penalized but were simply asked to stop violating" those laws (Kovarik, p. 5).

Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal brought into reality the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act), Kovarik explains. The Wagner Act guaranteed the right of workers to form unions and bargain collectively and in 1936 the Walsh Healy Act set safety and health requirements for government contractors; (government "advisors" set safety standards that were to be followed by contractors). An important safety law was passed in 1947 that "guaranteed a right to walk off the job if workers believe it was unsafe" (Kovarik, p. 6). The laws and regulations that Kovarik alluded to -- along with OSHA regulations -- have helped reduce the occupational fatality rate from 7.46 per 100,000 in 1980, to 4.25 per 100,000 workers in 1995.

Milestones in the Evolution of the Workplace Safety Movement -- All of Which Impacted the Construction Industry and Construction Worksite Dynamics

After the Civil War, the "seeds of the safety movement" began to be sown in the United States, Goetsch writes (p. 5). In 1857 the state of Massachusetts required factory inspections, and a year later "the first barrier safeguard was patented" (Goetsch, p. 5).

In 1877, Massachusetts again showed leadership by passing a law that required safeguards "for hazardous equipment" (Goetsch, p. 6). Also in 1877, Massachusetts passed the Employer's Liability Law, which established accountability for the employer when there is an accident in a workplace. And Goetsch (p. 6) notes that the "first recorded safety program was established in Joliet, Illinois"; a flywheel exploded at a steel plant -- a very dangerous accident -- and as a result a congressional committee in Illinois enacted a workplace safety program, the first such safety program in American industry history.

In the 1890s, construction workers building railroads were given a lift as far as safety goes on their worksites when the U.S. Railroad Appliance Act was put into law; the act required "the adoption of self-couplers and Westinghouse air brakes" which "saved the lives of hundreds of workers" (MacCollum, 2006, p. 2). The strategy in this instance was to place emphasis "on engineering controls to achieve safety," MacCollum explained.

All of these safety measures for various industries that evolved along the way towards the enactment of OSHA in 1970 had implications for the construction industry and workplaces where the various kinds of construction activities were ongoing.

Workers' compensation was another kind of safety program (like an insurance program for workers who are injured) and the first formation of a workers' compensation program happened in the state of Wisconsin in 1911 (Goetsch, p. 6). What was helpful about the workers' compensation programs for on-the-job accidents and injuries was that "they all provided some amount of compensationregardless of who was at fault" (Goetsch, p. 6).


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