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The Early History of the Department of Labor in Occupational Health and Safety

Posted by EHS Insight Resources on September 18, 2020 at 3:58 PM

Nowadays, the Department of Labor looms large in occupational health and safety.

It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when the Department of Labor was disengaged from worker safety – even nonexistent. But it’s a sign of how far we’ve come that we transitioned from nonexistent federal safety regulation to intensive regulation.

Here’s a look back at the early history and role of the Department of Labor in occupational health and safety.

The Beginning of Workers’ Compensation

Nowadays, we take workers’ compensation as a matter of course, but that wasn’t always the case. Back in the day, it was a rather novel concept.

The idea of compensating injured workers from an insurance fund began to take hold with the Pittsburgh Survey, a sociological survey in 1907 of Allegheny, Pennsylvania which provided the earliest and most thorough analysis of urban conditions in the United States. One of the major topics of investigation was industrial accidents.

The Pittsburgh Survey found that workers bore the overwhelming economic burden of industrial workplace accidents, even though most accidents were the employers’ fault. The authors agreed that employers should bear a greater burden, thus incentivizing them to eliminate the causes of industrial accidents.

That said, the idea of compensating workers for injuries was not newly introduced by the Pittsburgh Survey. It had been around for several years, though the Pittsburgh Survey helped make the idea more widespread. Interestingly, workers’ compensation was not originally conceived as a palliative measure, not a preventative one.

The survey’s call for an economic incentive to prevent accidents struck a responsive chord and quickly became the core rationale behind workers’ compensation. The irony, of course, is that workers’ compensation accomplished the least as a preventative measure. The more significant long-term impact was the creation of state industrial safety commissions with the authority to establish health and safety regulations.

Early Federal Action

So, where does the Department of Labor fit in?

The Department of Labor didn’t come on the scene for a while. In fact, the federal government was largely inactive (if not altogether dormant) for most of the early era of occupational health and safety. It only came on the scene with the advent of workers’ compensation.

The Department of Labor was formed in 1913, though it was a long time coming, the product of a half-century-long campaign. In fact, it was signed on March 4, 1913 by a reluctant President William Howard Taft mere hours before President Woodrow Wilson took office.

At the time, the Senate called on the new Secretary of Labor, William B. Wilson, to report on industrial accidents. Under Wilson’s guidance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics starting compiling accident statistics.

Wilson was a major guiding force in the early DOL, pushing for a critical belief: instead of forcing workers into unhealthy occupations, society should instead strive to make unhealthy occupations healthy. It’s a guiding principle that has shaped the DOL’s powers and development ever since.

Navigating the Department of Labor Occupational Health and Safety Today

The role of the Department of Labor in occupational health and safety has evolved significantly over time, even within the short window shown here. Today, it’s evolving faster than ever.

Our job is to help you keep pace, with compliance software that makes it easy to know what regulators want to see and how you can stay within the letter of the law when it comes to safety. Want to see how our software can help you prepare for tomorrow? Get in touch today to learn more.

Topics: OSHA, Workplace Health and Safety, Compliance, Safety Culture

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