The horrifying explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas is a painful reminder that workplace safety is a crucial part of public health. As former U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis noted in a Memorial Day speech in 2012 “Every day in America, 12 people go to work and never come home. Every year in America, nearly 4 million people suffer a workplace injury from which some may never recover. These are preventable tragedies that disable our workers, devastate our families, and damage our economy.”
In 1911, a fire at the Triangle Waist Factory in New York City, took the lives of 146 people in a mere 18 minutes, a horrific tragedy that is documented in news reports, survivor interviews, photos and documents compiled by Cornell University.. The victims suffocated or burned inside or jumped to their deaths to escape the flames. “They hit the pavement like rain” recalled a fire chief. In the wake of this tragedy, New York State created a Factory Investigating Commission. The owners of the factory were charged in criminal court. The full transcript of the trial is here. But rather than read it, why not listen to poet Robert Pinsky read his moving poem about the fire, “Shirt.”
States enacted factory inspection laws before and after the Triangle Fire, although safety enforcement was not always rigorous and small workplaces often escaped from regulation or avoided inspection. Widespread federal oversight of workplaces did not begin until 1971, with the creation of the Labor Department’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) following passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.
Workplace safety measures are attacked by critics of the “Nanny State,” who assert that the federal government is trying to legislate private behavior. They point at warning labels on tools and decry the government effort to disseminate what they view as common sense. Businesses facing regulation claim that OSHA rules don’t make workplaces safer and merely drive up costs for consumers.