1: Headlines regularly lament the decline in the number of manufacturing jobs.

“With the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy, many social critics have expressed nostalgia for the era of factories, mines, and mills,” Steven Pinker writes in Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.

“[P]robably because they never worked in one,” he notes.

There is, however, powerful good news regarding workplace safety.

In prior RiseWithDrews, we’ve examined the dramatic decline in violent deaths.  Compared with our ancestors, we are significantly less likely to die by homicide, automobile accident, plane crash, as well as accidental death due to falls, drownings, and fire.

The only cause of accidental deaths that is not falling is death by poison (solid and liquid) because this category includes drug overdoses which continue to rise at alarming rates.

2: “On top of all the lethal hazards we’ve examined,” Steven writes, “industrial workplaces add countless others, because whatever a machine can do to its raw materials—sawing, crushing, baking, rendering, stamping, threshing, or butchering them—it can also do to the workers tending it.”

In 1892, then U.S. President Benjamin Harrison noted that “American workmen are subjected to peril of life and limb as great as a soldier in time of war.”

The pictorial historian Otto Bettmann, publisher of The Good Old Days–They Were Terrible, writes about some of the horrid photos and captions he collected from that era: The miner “went down to work as to an open grave, not knowing when it might close on him. . . Unprotected powershafts maimed and killed hoopskirted workers. . . . The circus stuntman and test pilot today enjoy greater life assurance than did the [railroad] brakeman of yesterday, whose work called for precarious leaps between bucking freight cars at the command of the locomotive’s whistle. . . . Also subject to sudden death . . . were the train couplers, whose omnipresent hazard was loss of hands and fingers in the primitive link-and-pin devices. . . . Whether a worker was mutilated by a buzz saw, crushed by a beam, interred in a mine, or fell down a shaft, it was always ‘his own bad luck.'”

3: In the late 1800s, conditions gradually began to change “as the first labor unions organized, journalists took up the cause, and government agencies started to collect data quantifying the human toll,” Steven writes.  “In the 1890s, the annual death rate for trainmen was an astonishing 852 per 100,000, almost one percent a year. The carnage was reduced when an 1893 law mandated the use of air brakes and automatic couplers in all freight trains, the first federal law intended to improve workplace safety.”

Reforms continued during the early decades of the 20th century, known as the Progressive Era, as muckraking journalists and novelists like Upton Sinclair detailed the grim and dangerous realities of industrial work.

“The most effective reform was a simple change in the law brought over from Europe,” Steven notes, “employers’ liability and workmen’s compensation. Previously, injured workers or their survivors had to sue for compensation, usually unsuccessfully.  Now, employers were required to compensate them at a fixed rate.”

The change aligned the interests of management and workers: “Both had a stake in making workplaces safer, as did the insurers and government agencies that underwrote the compensation,” Steven writes.

“Companies set up safety committees and safety departments, hired safety engineers, and implemented many protections, sometimes out of economic or humanitarian motives, sometimes as a response to public shaming after a well-publicized disaster, often under the duress of lawsuits and government regulations,” he notes. 

The reforms resulted in a significant reduction in workplace deaths: See in figure 12-7.

“At almost 5,000 deaths in 2015, the number of workers killed on the job is still too high,” Steven observes, “but it’s much better than the 20,000 deaths in 1929, when the population was less than two-fifths the size. Much of the savings is the result of the movement of the labor force from farms and factories to stores and offices. But much of it is a gift of the discovery that saving lives while producing the same number of widgets is a solvable engineering problem.”


More tomorrow!


Reflection: Was I aware of the good news regarding the dramatic reduction in workplace deaths? 

Action: Share this data with friends and family who are convinced we live in “the worst of times.”

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