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Playing It Safe: A Look at Workplace Safety During the Roaring '20s and Now

January 4, 2012

In many respects, we take today's focus on workplace safety for granted. Sophisticated computer models test machines and equipment before they're ever placed on an assembly line or put into service. High-tech sensors monitor and gauge working conditions and prevent industrial accidents. And a 24-7 news and information stream ensures that the public knows about any major accident or problem. There's never been a greater emphasis on occupational safety and health.

But it hasn't always been this way. In the 1920s, workplace injuries and deaths were common and, in many cases, labor conditions were nothing less than grueling. Movies played up unsafe conditions, including silent-film comedian Harold Lloyd's iconic 1923 picture Safety Last!—where a worker is seen dangling perilously from the hands of a large clock near the top of a 12-story building. Government regulations were nearly nonexistent, workers' compensation was still largely voluntary and labor unions hadn't yet emerged as a significant force. "It was a different era with entirely different thinking," says Tom Leamon, adjunct professor of occupational safety at the Harvard University School of Public Health.

Over the past century, changes in occupational safety have benefited society by radically reducing accidents and deaths. In 1913, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics documented approximately 23,000 industrial deaths among a workforce of 38 million—a rate of about 61 deaths per 100,000 workers. Although the reporting system has changed over the years, the figure dropped to 37 deaths per 100,000 workers by 1933 and 3.5 per 100,000 full-time-equivalent workers in 2010.

Injuries and deaths continue to decline in many fields. These include transportation-related accidents, fatal falls, incidents occurring in warehouses and industrial sites, and at construction sites. "As a society, we have become a lot more conscious and focused on safe working environments," says Jack Glass, principal consultant at J. Tyler Scientific Co., a Tabernacle, New Jersey-based environmental consulting and services firm. "We also witnessed remarkable advances in ergonomics and achieved a far greater understanding of what safety is and how to achieve it."

In the 1920s, transportation jobs were markedly different than today. "Even in an industrial plant, there were supervisors and managers to oversee work and point out unsafe work practices," says David Melton, managing director of global road safety at the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. "But in transportation, particularly in the field, there was nobody to point out to a driver that he or she was doing a good job or bad job. There were few ways for an employer to observe safe or unsafe behaviors for those controlling vehicles, trains and other forms of transportation."

One interesting idea that emanated from the era was detailed in a mid-'20s edition of The Personnel Journal, Workforce Management's forebear, that detailed a test for taxicab drivers: "The day is coming when tests for carefulness in operating an automobile will be widely used as part of the examination of all professional chauffeurs." It then reported that psychological tests could play a major role in eliminating "unsafe and incompetent" taxicab drivers. The goal was to devise a way to select "more efficient and safer drivers" and "reduce the cost of operation."

Researchers created a series of tests designed to measure desirable traits and abilities. Participants took a written psychological test measuring mental alertness and general intelligence. They were also tested on a crude—by today's standards—simulator-type device that used a dummy car resembling a taxi. The driver was asked to respond to lights and other stimuli. "He is told to imagine that he is driving along at ordinary speed" and asked to respond accordingly. This required the use of both hands and feet for steering and braking. A machine recorded the responses and indicated whether the driver had responded in an allowable period of time and how many potential accidents had taken place.

The research spanned two months in 1925. It found that the average number of accidents per person for those passing the test was 1.3, while accidents per person for individuals failing the test totaled three. When researchers cross-checked the scores with supervisor ratings, they found that those who were considered the safest and most careful drivers performed best on the test. But the author, David Wechsler, also noted that those with the fastest reflexes had a greater number of accidents. The results, he wrote, shouldn't be interpreted to "mean that a very quick reaction is a handicap to driving but that men who are very quick are liable to take chances because of over-confidence."

The idea of using simulators caught on. In 1929, Edwin Link introduced the Link Trainer, a basic blue metal frame flight simulator that approximated the task of flying an airplane. It made it possible to practice and improve skills without the restrictions of weather and the risk of flying a plane with little experience. An electric motor moved and rotated a pneumatic platform and provided the sensation of yaw. The cockpit included instruments that provided feedback and helped pilots learn to fly in a safe environment.

Fast-forward to 2012. Computer graphics create the illusion of real airports and landing strips. They can be programmed to match different types of aircraft or conditions. In addition, planes, trains, buses, taxis and other vehicles have become safer because of computerization and a spate of devices. Traction control and collision-avoidance systems help reduce and manage unsafe conditions as well as driver error. Sensors on airplanes can detect problems before a pilot is able to react. And wireless fleet tracking systems with GPS devices allow employers to spot drivers who speed, accelerate or brake too quickly or drive unsafely.

No system will ever be perfect, Melton says. The growing use of mobile phones and texting—the cause of several deadly motor-vehicle accidents over the past decade—is a growing concern for employers. More complex vehicles can also lead to distraction and errors. "Until we figure out a way to affect human behavior and performance, there will always be accidents," he says. "The next frontier is to understand why people do the things that they do and find ways to counteract them."

Attitudes about safety in factories and manufacturing plants have also changed fundamentally over the past century. In the 1920s, a general sentiment existed that injuries and deaths occurred mostly because workers were careless, says Patric McCon, industry practice leader for manufacturing in risk engineering at insurance company Zurich Services Corp. "There was a general perception that it wasn't legitimate work if the job was completely safe." Lost limbs in factories and large numbers of deaths in coal mines and construction jobs were the norm.

Leading up to the 1920s, the U.S. was among the most dangerous places to work. American workers were two to three times more likely to be injured or killed than their European counterparts. Consider: In West Virginia alone, 18 major accidents occurred in coal mines during the 1920s, according to the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training. Two of these incidents resulted in approximately 200 deaths, and the total count for the period was 419. By contrast, only two incidents occurred from 2000 through 2009. These events resulted in 15 deaths. Meat packing plants, auto assembly lines, textile plants and others report a similar decline in injuries and deaths as a spate of safety measures have taken hold.

In the 1920s, researchers began examining an array of safety factors, including ergonomics, behavior and workplace lighting, McCon says. For example, The Personnel Journal reported in 1928 that "modernization of illumination brought decreases in accidents and increases in production." The author, Walter Polakov, an industrial engineer based in New York City, wrote that large manufacturers that installed lighting in "accordance with modern practices" witnessed a 50 to 75 percent reduction in accidents, including tripping and falling.

Over the years, the biggest improvements in safety have resulted from the elimination of numerous repetitive tasks—in some cases through machines and robotic devices. But, according to Harvard's Leamon, a number of other factors have played a role as well: the rise of unions in the 1920s and 1930s, introduction of workers' compensation in the 1940s and 1950s, and introduction of Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards in 1970. "Companies discovered that there is a direct relationship between their safety record and their insurance costs."

Still other factors enter the picture. Today, companies are much more conscious of their brand and image, and they want to be perceived positively by consumers, the media and potential employees, McCon says. "Society no longer accepts the idea that it's natural to get injured when you work hard, and senior executives believe that safety is a top priority." Finally, "We understand more about why injuries and deaths occur. We understand how to keep machines and processes from hurting people."

McCon believes that the professionalization of safety and health functions has also contributed to better manufacturing environments. "In the 1920s there were no safety engineers. Even in the 1950s, they didn't exist by today's standard. We had safety supervisors but they didn't have the technical knowledge or framework to design better manufacturing environments."

The introduction of the digital age and the rise of the knowledge worker have redefined the office. In the 1920s, the typical office environment was relatively austere. A glance into a workplace would have revealed wooden desks, task lights, writing blotters and, for secretaries or bookkeepers, a typewriter or mechanical adding machine. There was little attention paid to ergonomics and health. Most attention centered on scientific management studies.

Charissa Shaw, CEO of Venice, California-based consulting firm Ergolution, says that during the 1920s, the design of office spaces was not much of a consideration. Ergonomics studies mostly focused on manufacturing. What's more, "Few people suffered injuries from typewriters." Partly because of the design of typewriters and a more active nature of work and partly because secretaries and others displayed better posture than today's workers, fewer injuries and problems occurred—and those who had them may not have willingly reported them.

In the 1920s and 1930s, most ergonomics research examined human factors. Ironically, much of today's knowledge about ergonomics and office design has derived from industrial engineers and designers who strived to build better airplane cockpits and other spaces used in critical jobs. Along the way, computers—as well as ongoing research about how humans sit, move and interact—have led to far better and safer products and environments.

But personal computers have an obvious downside. It wasn't until the advent of the mouse and modern keyboards that doctors began seeing widespread signs of repetitive strain injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome. The problem with these devices, Shaw says, is they force the hands and wrists into unnatural positions for extended periods of time. In the 1990s, OSHA drafted an ergonomic standard that was rejected by the business community based on costs to comply, but it did succeed in raising awareness.

There's also a growing issue revolving around sedentary jobs and obesity. The New York Times recently reported that jobs requiring moderate physical activity have dropped from 50 percent to 20 percent of the total since the 1960s. As a result of more than 1 in 3 Americans suffering from obesity and increased insurance and other costs associated with it, wellness programs and on-campus fitness centers are becoming the new normal.

Safety science continues to advance. Shaw believes that the next stage of ergonomics involves things such as gestural computing, holographically displayed keyboards, and a foot mouse and controls that use the entire body and involve more natural motions. Office environments continue to improve, she says. Ergonomics holds the clues to a more productive and injury-free environment." Adds Glass: "As we continue to evolve from an industrial society to a service society, computers and work environments create entirely different risks and concerns. This is the next frontier."

And that frontier is a quantum leap from where this country was 90 years ago. Attitudes, actions and technology have all played a role in improving safety. Although critics argue that problems remain—illegal immigrants often find themselves subjected to dangerous working environments and some claim that many dangerous jobs have been sent offshore to low-wage and less-regulated countries such as China, India and Mexico—we've come a long way.

Concludes Leamon: "Although there's no way to reduce risk to zero and there are still steps that industry can take to continue to make workplaces safer, the last century has brought enormous changes in thinking as well as our willingness and ability to design work environments that minimize risks."

Samuel Greengard is a freelance writer based in West Linn, Oregon. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.