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The National Safety Council eliminates preventable deaths at work, in homes and communities, and on the road through leadership, research, education and advocacy.
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The arrival of a new decade may leave us all, safety leaders and those they support, wondering what 2020 and beyond may mean for safety.
We know that much has changed since the Roaring Twenties. When it comes to transportation, workplace and off-the-job safety, we have made a great deal of progress. However, we still face a long list of daily hazards in our lives, which reinforces our life-saving mission as we look into the next decade.
Before we look forward, let’s examine where we’ve been.
Following the 1920s, safety organizations, as well as organized labor, proliferated throughout the century. Women got the right to vote. Motor vehicles took over as our preferred mode of transportation, as well as the most likely way for one’s life to be cut short. The first traffic laws were enacted in 1924, yet driver safety training was virtually non-existent for several decades.
Air and space travel went from being science fiction to becoming a reality as commercial aviation took flight. Vaccines for many life-threatening diseases were developed beginning in the 1930s.
We have significantly shifted our thinking about what we consider acceptable hazards both on and off the job. Personal protective equipment, or PPE, including respiratory protection for workers in the most hazardous working environments, became available a century ago. Hard hats were a novelty in 1920s, with the first hard hat patent in 1919. Today, entering a construction site without one could be cause for dismissal. Some of our most recognizable icons, like city skylines, the Hoover Dam and the Golden Gate Bridge, existed only in our imagination in the 1920s. Our expectations of safety grew just as those major construction projects made history. These challenging projects demanded leadership to make higher safety standards part of the journey.
Today, we expect both employers and government agencies to keep workers safe on the job, reducing injuries and fatalities. Tracking yearly fatality data for preventable deaths also started in earnest beginning in 1921, and the safety profession as a whole came into its own during this time. Safety + Health magazine is celebrating 100 years in publication.
While we have eliminated nearly 80% of workplace fatalities, the most hazardous occupations remain on the most-dangerous list – construction, factory work, agriculture and mining. Slips, trips and falls and transportation incidents continue to dominate both on- and off-the-job hazards. We also have gained exposure to new hazards. Today, we are concerned about things like ergonomics and the dangers of sedentary work. We are taking a more holistic view of safety and health so every employee can end their work day in the same or better condition as when they started it. And with women joining every profession, including safety, critical PPE is finally being made to fit people regardless of their packaging.
The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows workplace fatalities have reached their highest numbers in a decade, so we still have work to do to ensure that when people go to work in the morning, they return safely home to their loved ones at the end of the day. The need to ensure that people are able to live their fullest lives is just as urgent today as when workplace safety first became a beckoning call.
As we begin a new decade of safety, we have new ways to address today’s hazards. Powerful data analytics and the availability of nearly unlimited information provide a treasure trove of insights into how people get hurt and how we can improve our operations. A nuanced understanding of how we make safe decisions and the psychology of visual literacy can help us improve hazard recognition and design systems to make them more forgiving of human error. Technology promises to help us remove people from harm’s way in the most dangerous working environments and ensure better and safer ways to get work done. Getting to work in the first place also is becoming safer. Driver assistance technology is becoming more advanced, and eventually we will reap the safety benefits of automation.
The future will no doubt bring new hazards we haven’t considered yet, but if the last century is any indication, we will continue to do great things and make a positive difference in people’s lives. So here’s to a new decade of safety. Thank you for your contribution to this journey.
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