Workplace safety then (1911, N.Y.C.) and now (2013, West, Texas)

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A fire burns at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas after an explosion on April 17. (APMichael Ainsworth/The Dallas Morning News)

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.

Labor and health advocates argue that OSHA is underfunded and lacks the manpower and resources to do the job.  In the wake of the West Texas tragedy, this claim is gaining new attention.  The fertilizer plant, filled with hazardous and highly flammable chemicals, had last been inspected by OSHA in 1985.  That isn’t surprising, given that OSHA reports having only “2,200 inspectors responsible for the health and safety of 130 million workers employed at more than 8 million worksites around the nation.”

In the coming weeks there will be investigations of the West, Texas factory explosion. Perhaps there will be state or federal hearings. Maybe there will be charges filed in civil or criminal court and lengthy trials or undisclosed settlements.  Public health and workplace safety advocates and survivors will speak of what happened, what might have been, and what could be.

We can expect that. Can we also expect new safety regulations and legislation mandating more inspectors and inspections? For that, we will have to watch and see.

Janet Golden, a Rutgers University history professor, specializes in the histories of medicine, childhood and women.

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