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A Century of Progress: The Evolution of Workplace Safety and Health in Manufacturing

Published by CME Manitoba on April 13, 2018

This article is published by Rick Rennie from Safe Work Manitoba on April 13, 2018

This past March we marked the anniversary of one of the worst industrial tragedies in history: The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire that killed 146 workers in New York City. 

While this is an opportunity to reflect on all workers killed or injured on the job, it is also a time to consider how far we have come in workplace safety and health, in manufacturing and elsewhere. 

In the early years of the 20th Century, employers, workers and governments alike were struggling to adjust to the new realities of rapid industrialization, the rise of mass production and the growth of urban centers. The regulatory regime reflected the social and cultural realities of the time. In Manitoba, manufacturing was one of the first sectors to come under what we would now recognize as workplace safety measures: the Factory Act of 1900 which limited employment of children and working hours.

Prior to the introduction of workers compensation, when workers were injured or killed, they or their dependents had no recourse but to pursue damages through the courts. In response to the growing need to support injured workers and their families, in 1914 Ontario introduced the country's first Workers Compensation Act. Other provinces followed suit, with Manitoba introducing its Act in 1916.

Under what is often called "The Historic Compromise" workers gave up their right to sue employers for workplace injuries in exchange for guaranteed benefits. Also, employers' premiums were now determined to some extent by their injury experience, which was an added incentive to engage in prevention.

Throughout the 20th Century, there was a gradual shift away from a focus on human error as the overriding cause of workplace injuries. Workplace design, equipment, processes, and other "non-human" factors were increasing taken into account.

Changing views of injury causation were accompanied by evolving attitudes about shared responsibility. Manitoba manufacturers helped lead the forward-thinking trend. By the 1970's these new attitudes were reflected in new workplace safety and health measures. Manitoba introduced its first Workplace Safety and Health Act in 1976. A key principle of the new legislation was the "Internal Responsibility System" under which all workplace parties recognized their role in prevention. Workers were granted the Right to Know about workplace hazards, the Right to Refuse unsafe work and the Right to Participate in health and safety decisions.  

Also, the very use of the term "health" in the new legislation reflected a growing understanding of and concern with environmental hazards including radiation, lead, asbestos and potentially harmful agents. Standards for processes, equipment and hazard reduction that had evolved through best practices over the years were codified in regulations.

In recent years, new issues have garnered attention and been reflected in the approach to prevention, including workplace violence and harassment. There is also increased awareness of workplace mental health and the need to support workers with mental health issues.

Manitoba's manufacturing sector acknowledges leadership in safety as both the right thing to do as well as a best business practice. In 2016, under the umbrella of parent organization Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, formed its Industry-Based Safety Program "Made Safe" to provide prevention training, consulting and other services. Made Safe also facilitates "SAFE Work Certified" designation in recognition of the quality of an employer's Safety and Health Management System, which can, in turn, lead to a rebate on workers compensation premiums. The SAFE Work Certified program reflects a growing tendency to move away from focusing solely on "lagging indicators" of safety, such as injury rates and days lost, toward "leading indicators" such as training, hazard recognition and proactive factors.

Time-loss injuries in Manitoba's manufacturing sector have decreased by about 50 per cent in the past decade, and embracing initiatives such as Made Safe and SAFE Work Certified are key to continuing that progress.

Manufacturing, like other sectors, has come a long way from the environment that generated tragedies like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire over a century ago. The sector is ready to embrace initiatives and efforts that will continue to safeguard employees and lead the way forward as an industry of choice for the current and future workforce.

About the author

Rick Rennie is a Safety Culture Specialist with SAFE Work Manitoba, the public agency dedicated to the prevention of workplace injury and illness. Rick has over twenty years of experience in workplace safety and health, as an advocate, researcher, teacher and author.

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