If you had asked a factory manager in 1800 about workplace safety, you likely would have gotten a blank stare.

Their plant’s temporary loss of productivity when an employee lost a finger, an arm, or their life, was simply a cost of doing business. It didn’t occur to wealthy owners to consider the loss from the worker’s perspective.

The Industrial Revolution brought innovative new methods and machines for fabricating products at unprecedented scale. But it also brought unprecedented new hazards to workers’ health and safety. Early manufacturers still saw no reason to divert their growing profits to improving the awful working conditions.

Even when liability suits were filed by injured workers, the courts typically protected the companies, not the victims, who supposedly knew the risks when they signed on.

Workers, and Society, Begin to Fight Back

The first labor movements emerged in the late 19th century, as workers formed unions to demand better, safer and healthier working conditions. Government organizations began issuing the first workplace regulations, starting with the railroad and mining industries.

But these rules were unevenly enforced, and frequently disregarded. To try to avoid government oversight, some industries began developing their own workplace standards.

These included better factory ventilation to reduce noxious fumes and airborne particles from toxic materials. Measures were taken to protect agricultural workers from disease caused by animal waste, and later, pesticides. In mining, open lanterns that sparked fiery infernos from underground gases were eventually replaced by safety lamps.

Even when progressive reformers around 1900 pressed for better workplace safety, improvement remained spotty. That is, until the first Workers Compensation laws were introduced. These raised the financial cost of accidents for employers. By hitting them where it hurt, companies overall began making a more earnest effort.

A Bridge Builder Makes a Meaningful Leap

Bridge construction workers had been considered high-wire daredevils, with no protection despite the awkward footing, icy winds, and dangerous waters below. At the time, it was a rule of thumb that one ‘bridgeman’ would likely die on the job for every million dollars spent on a new waterway overpass.

In 1933, Joseph Strauss was a tireless advocate for the proposed Golden Gate Bridge over San Francisco Bay. Tapped as the project’s Chief Engineer, the massive structure of orange-painted steel turned out not to be his only legacy. His surprisingly advanced approach to worker safety would also have far-reaching impact.

Strauss’ measures included a safety net underneath the entire bridge during roadway construction. What seems like a no-brainer now was a fresh innovation that, in the end, kept 19 families from becoming fatherless. The workers saved by the suspended net became known as ‘The Halfway to Hell Club.’

Other precautions included safety helmets, safety lines, and glare-free goggles to cut the sun’s reflection off the water. Portable respirators helped prevent inhalation of sand-blasted particles. Diets were formulated to reduce high-elevation dizziness. And employees could visit the on-site field hospital for any health concerns.

How did Joseph Strauss keep supervisors and workers on board with his rigorous safety rules? He simply fired those who breached them, no questions asked. With a budget of $35 million, only eleven men perished during bridge construction, ten during a single accident, when a scaffold fell and tore through the safety net.

Ironically, that success was a disappointment for the next job-seekers in line. They considered the death of a bridge worker as their chance for a steady paycheck during the dire days of the Great Depression.

Greater Awareness Leads to Greater Improvement

Over the next 40 years, managers at large plants and jobsites began to pro-actively look for potential risks. The most progressive set up dedicated Safety Departments. The new National Safety Council helped firms share information and ideas. And after World War II, labor unions took advantage of new momentum to negotiate for further improvements.

But 1971 was the real turning point for workplace safety. Congress established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to develop comprehensive health and safety standards, and to actively monitor and enforce them. Training and materials were provided for issues such as asbestos exposure, fall protection, and machine guarding.

The largest U.S. corporations led the way in ramping up plant safety, despite a concurrent push for ramped-up production. Efforts to be seen as good corporate citizens were driven by an enlightened concern for their human resources – but also by public relations. Whistleblower protections, despite their controversy, were established. And ‘Safety First’ became the slogan plastered to plant walls all over America.

Safety Management Becomes an Industry in Itself

Regular workplace safety inspections were originally conducted with clipboards and paper records. Starting in the 1980s, computerized spreadsheets helped to document safety breaches, incidents, and remedial tasks. And in the 2010s, simple mobile ‘checklist’ apps began to be used for regular audits.

But the demands of today’s industries and regulators have largely outpaced those earlier solutions. Skilled safety professionals now use smart, comprehensive EHS management software to keep track of everything, as well as for foolproof communication and continuous improvement.

Safety Indicators, an advanced cloud-based safety management suite, has taken EHS Directors even further, with automated functions, real-time analytics, and endless configurations. Such a highly evolved approach to workplace safety likely would have impressed Joseph Strauss himself.