As part of our on-going celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Health and Safety at Work Etc. Act 1974, we're publishing a short series of articles highlighting the history of health and safety practices, the people who helped shape them and a look at what challenges the act still faces, this time looking at those who have shaped the landscape of Health and Safety.

Pioneers of Health and Safety at work

In modern workplaces, the robust health and safety measures we rely on are often overlooked. Yet, these protections are the result of efforts by countless pioneers. This article explores three trailblazers who transformed workplace safety, shaping the secure environments we benefit from today.

Frances Perkins

In 1911, New York was shocked by the devastating fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Occupying the top three floors of a ten-storey building, the factory became a death trap when a fire broke out on the ninth floor. With fire doors locked and the elevator malfunctioning, 146 people perished within 18 minutes. Witnessing this tragedy first-hand, Frances Perkins dedicated herself to improving workplace fire safety. She became the secretary for the Committee on Safety, which successfully introduced over 36 state labour laws. These included mandates for factory sprinkler systems and restrictions on weekly working hours for women and children. 

Under Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, Perkins broke new ground as the USA’s first female cabinet secretary. Her tenure saw the abolition of child labour and the enactment of minimum wage and maximum hour laws. Today, in England and Wales, general fire safety is governed by the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005, setting minimum fire safety standards for most non-domestic premises. In the workplace, employers are designated as the Responsible Person, tasked with carrying out essential fire safety duties, including conducting fire risk assessments. 

Charles Priestley

Closer to home, in England in 1837, the landmark duty of care case arose when Charles Priestley sued his employer for workplace-related injuries. Priestley, a servant butcher, was tasked with delivering mutton to market. The cart he was given was overloaded, causing it to overturn and resulting in serious injuries for Priestley.

The court ruled that an employer is obligated to ensure the safety of their employees, awarding Priestley £100 in compensation. This case established the fundamental concept that employers owe a duty of care to their employees, a principle that remains well established today. By holding his employer accountable for creating an unsafe work environment, Priestley set a precedent that workers are entitled to safe working conditions, and that employers must be responsible for maintaining them.

Alice Hamilton

Another pioneer from across the pond was Alice Hamilton, a specialist in industrial toxicology and the first female professor at Harvard Medical School. Hamilton dedicated her career to studying occupational illnesses and the harmful effects of industrial metals and chemicals on the human body. She believed workers' reports were often more credible than their employers' statements. Her surveys highlighted the dangers posed by toxic substances like lead and mercury commonly found in factories.

Hamilton’s work led her to confront the head of the National Lead Company. By presenting evidence of serious illness among workers, she compelled the company to reduce fumes and dust exposure. Her lifelong commitment to occupational safety significantly contributed to the development of legislation and government regulations, including the Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1970—passed just months after her death—which greatly improved workplace conditions and health for future generations of workers. 

The examples above highlight just three individuals who have paved the way for workplace health and safety. Their dedication to improving working conditions has resulted in safer environments across all professions, ensuring that workers are protected while performing their duties. Their contributions have set a standard of care and safety that continues to benefit employees everywhere and provide learnings for those taking the practices forward. 

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