History of Occupational Health and Safety

History of Occupational Health and Safety

A Short History of Occupational Health and Safety (OHS)

Occupational Health and Safety, or Work Health and Safety (WHS), cops a lot of flak in Australia. If you talk to a lot of Australians about health and safety at work or in their business, you’ll probably hear things like:

  • “We never needed this stuff before.” *
  • “How am I supposed to understand all these rules?” *
  • “All this occupational health and safety stuff slows me down” *
  • “All this safety equipment costs me a fortune” *
  • “Real men just get on with it”*

*Actual language may be more colourful…

These OHS laws and regulations have been developed for good reasons. Less than 100 years ago, we enjoyed few of the protections we have today. Looking at the history of occupational health and safety is one of the best ways to understand why these laws exist and the benefit they offer, even if they’re not always easy or convenient to comply with.

Did your safety training go something like this?


Even in the 1940s they knew better!


Harry McShane, aged 16. Photograph by Lewis Wickes Hine. Courtesy of Library of Congress & Wikimedia Commons

Harry McShane, aged 16. Photograph by Lewis Wickes Hine. Courtesy of Library of Congress & Wikimedia Commons

Occupational Health and Safety in the 19th Century

Nineteenth-century industrial machines were seriously dangerous. Workers had genuine reason to fear the machines they used every day. Occupational injury and death were a serious threat to worker’s lives and livelihoods.

Workers didn’t have the kinds of basic safety practices and compensation schemes that we take for granted these days.

Harry McShane, a young American factory worker, is a prime example. He got caught on the belt of a machine in a spring factory in May of 1908. His arm was pulled off near the shoulder. His right leg was broken through the kneecap. He was 16 years old. No compensation was paid.

He’d already been working in the factory for two years when the accident occurred. According to a statement made by Harry’s father, his employers paid him no attention while he was at the hospital, or after he returned home.


Early Occupational Health and Safety Laws

Incidents like Harry McShane’s accident, and the rise of labour movements, brought occupational health and safety issues to the forefront of society. In response, Some landmark changes to occupational health and safety occurred during the nineteenth century:

  • 1833, United Kingdom: Formation of HM Factory Inspectorate. The Inspectorate was tasked with inspecting factories to ensure the prevention of injury to child textile workers.
  • 1837, United Kingdom: Priestly vs Fowler case established occupational health and safety as part of common law.
  • 1840, United Kingdom: A Royal Commission published findings on the state of conditions for workers in the mining industry. It documented the appallingly dangerous working conditions and high frequency of accidents in mines. The public outrage that followed resulted in the Mines Act of 1842. The Act created an Inspectorate for mines and collieries (in the UK, a colliery includes a coal mine and its structures) which led to many safety improvements and prosecutions. Inspectors could enter and inspect premises at their discretion by 1850.
  • 1880, USA: Voluntary establishment of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), one of the first standardising bodies. ASME’s formation was in response to a reported 50,000 fatalities a year caused by explosions in pressures systems on land and at sea.
  • 1883 & 1884, Germany: Otto von Bismarck brought about the western world’s first social insurance legislation in 1883, and followed with the first worker’s compensation law in 1884. That triggered the implementation of similar Acts in some other countries, partly due to labour unrest.


Landmark OHS event: ‘Duty of care’ established in the United Kingdom

The UK case of Wilsons and Clyde Coal Ltd v English in 1937 examined the employer’s duty to provide a safe system of work for all its employees. They found that the employer has a non-delegate duty to create a safe system of work. Even if the employer delegates that duty to someone else, the employer still remains responsible for workplace safety.

Major Occupational Health and Safety Breakthrough for Australia, 1956

The core of much occupational health and safety legislation in Australia originates from a building site in 1956. A group of employees were hoisting buckets of hot bitumen to the roof of a five-storey building. A bucket spilled hot bitumen onto one of the workers below.

The worker sued their employer and the case ended up in the High Court of Australia. The worker won. The High Court decided that the employer had a duty “… to take reasonable care to avoid exposing the employee to unnecessary risk of injury.” (Established in Hamilton v Nuroof (WA) Pty Ltd [1956] 96 CLR 18 at 25). This case is still cited in Australian occupational health and safety cases today.

You may hear people argue that occupational health and safety has gone too far to protect employees, at the expense of employers – however the intention has always been to value human life over profit.

OHS videos – trying to be funny since the 1950s

Australian occupational health and safety reforms in the 1970s & 80s

The release of the Robens Report in 1972 was a historical moment in Australian occupational health and safety. The Robens Report reviewed occupational health and safety practices in the United Kingdom, which were similar to Australian systems.

The funding of the Robens Report was the UK Government’s acknowledgement that existing occupational health and safe policies had not been enough to prevent the flow of industrial accidents, illness and disease. Prior to the Robens Report, occupational health and safety laws were based on technical, detailed specification standards. They focused mainly on prescriptive measures – specifying machinery guarding measures that had to be adopted to protect workers operating dangerous machinery.

Those laws were reviewed in the report and found to be over-regulated, ad hoc and haphazard in application, fragmented, confused, out of date and incomplete – leaving holes and gaps in occupational health and safety practices. The Robens Report proposed legislation that was less prescriptive and more self-regulating. It focused on using a mix of general duties of care, performance standards and process standards. Cooperation between employers and employees was identified as crucial to success.

Australian States and Territories adopted the Robens style of occupational health and safety legislation in the 1970s and 1980s. You might be more familiar with this style of OHS – the laws set out hazard identification and risk identification, assessment and control procedures.

America also got serious about OHS in the 1970s

America had already done much to improve occupational health and safety practices since the start of the twentieth century, but was still falling short.

In 1968, 14,000 American soldiers were killed at the height of the Vietnam War. Another 46,000 soldiers were wounded. In the same year, 14,000 American workers were killed at home, in occupational health and safety incidents. Another 2.5 million workers suffered disabling injuries. These staggering statistics prompted the creation new health and safety laws, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the United States.

Despite growth in the size of the workforce, workplace fatalities have decreased to 4,609 as of 2011. This is compelling evidence occupational health and safety works.

Australian occuaptional health and safety – 1992 to the present

Today, Australia still uses the same style of occupational health and safety laws adopted following the Robens Report.

Ideas from the Brundtland Report, released in 1987, have also be introduced. The Report famously deals with sustainable development and the political changes we require to achieve it. The Brundtland Report definition of sustainable development is well known: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

It brought ethics back into the spotlight for human and corporate conduct, good government and the building of safe and civil society.

Harmonisation of occupational health and safety laws

There have been numerous revisions of state and territory legislation to improve OHS laws and keep them current in the modern workplace. One of the latest changes is harmonisation of the 10 sets of state, territory and commonwealth occupational health and safety legislation. The new legislation introduced by each state is based on the same model to try to ensure consistency nationwide.

The reform has been largely successful, though some states still lag behind with implementation of the new model laws.

Occupational health and safety – learn to appreciate it

Despite the disregard many people feel for occupational health and safety practices, there are some seriously good reasons why you should care about OHS in Australia. For starters, 75 Australians have already died at work this year (as of 31st May 2013). In 2012, 192 people died in work related across Australia.

Workplace based health & safety issues won’t always kill you outright. They can leave you with lingering pain, injury and disease for the rest of your life. Asbestos-related illness is the most famous and among the most horrifying health and safety failures in Australia.

The fibrous material was widely used in Australia during the 20th century. It had many industrial and domestic applications. Unfortunately, the fibres have been shown to cause many serious health risks, including the cancer mesothelioma and asbestosis.

Despite the dangers of this hazardous material, asbestos was only completely banned at the end of 2003. We still live with asbestos in many buildings, both residential and commercial. It still poses serious risks on many work sites. Workplaces will always have inherent dangers and we constantly create and use new hazardous substances.

Australian occupational health and safety practices – pretty good you say? We can do better.


Historical Occupational Health and Safety Videos

Check out the demonstration of putting out a fire with an asbestos blanket – fighting fire with fire!



Wilsons & Clyde Coal Co Ltd v English

Brundtland Report

Preistly v Fowler

A historical explanation of the development of occupational health and safety and the important position it now occupies in society

The regulation of occupational health and safety in Australia


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