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Safety First: Technology, Labor, and Business in the Building of American Work Safety, 1870-1939.

By Mark Aldrich. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. xx + 415 pp. Illustrations, figures, tables, notes, appendices, and index. $49.95. ISBN 0-80185405-9.

Reviewed by Sara E. Wermiel

The sad photograph of a steelworker without a left arm and leg on the dust jacket of Mark Aldrich's history of job safety is rather at odds with the book's happier message, which is that overall, during the twentieth century, work has become safer. Given all the press about sick buildings and carpal tunnel syndrome, not to mention the persistence of dirty and dangerous jobs, this conclusion seems surprising. Nevertheless, Mark Aldrich argues, crippling and deadly accidents are much rarer today than at the turn of the century. He acknowledges that credit for the improved safety picture economy-wide is due partly to a shift in the composition of employment from manufacturing to safer service jobs. Still, even within the two hazardous fields that are the focus of his study - manufacturing and railroads - workplace safety improved. The picture is less positive in the third industry he discusses, coal mining. Aldrich offers reasons for the success in manufacturing and railroads, and the lack of progress in coal mining. His main conclusion is that real improvement occurred when businesses accepted safety as a management responsibility.

In the first part of the book, Aldrich sketches a picture of workplace hazards during the hard-driving days at the end of the nineteenth century, when industrial accidents were on the rise. Even though new technology was introduced without any thought of the consequences for worker safety, job injuries were chalked up to individual carelessness. Employers had little financial incentive to prevent them: when they had no legal obligation to provide safe workplaces, courts ruled in their favor in negligence suits. The indirect costs of unsafe workplaces - low morale, high turnover, reduced labor quality - apparently were insufficient inducement to employers to improve conditions.

Public outrage over particularly deadly accidents prompted lawmakers to enact safety legislation. For example, the outcry over train wrecks, which incidentally killed passengers as well as railroad workers, encouraged Congress to mandate air brakes and automatic couplers in the Safety Appliance Act of 1893. Many states enacted factory and mine safety laws in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Aldrich concludes, however, that this public regulation - because of weak enforcement or because the laws dealt with a few discrete job-site problems but inevitably missed many situations that could lead to harm - did little to reduce the overall numbers of deaths and injuries.

In the early twentieth century, in some sectors, job safety began to improve. Aldrich, an economist, explains this trend chiefly in economic terms, as the result of a change in the mix of economic incentives businessmen faced. He concludes that the enactment of workmen's compensation laws, by increasing the cost of injuries to employers, was the most consequential development. In order to reduce these costs and to fend off more regulation, some employers began to introduce safety measures. U.S. Steel was one of the earliest to do so; it started its "Safety First" program in 1906 for the purpose of quieting criticism of the company as well as to protect workers. The program also was good for the firm's bottom line, more than paying for itself in reduced workmen's compensation costs.

An ideological breakthrough occurred when businessmen began to see accidents as a sign of management failure rather than worker carelessness. Aldrich found that the kinds of firms that took up safety as a management responsibility had the most success in preventing injuries. These companies tended to be large ones - e.g., steel makers and DuPont - for which workmen's compensation was a significant cost. Also, in these efficiency-enthralled times, these firms came to associate accidents with waste, and waste was bad. They established safety departments, hired men from the new profession of safety engineering, established worker/management safety committees, set up personnel departments, bought personal protective gear for their employees, and redesigned their workplaces with safety in mind.

Aldrich's conclusion that accident mitigation was most successful when committed employers tailored programs to their workplaces would seem to support the views of critics of public regulation, who argue that the uniform standards, "command and control" route to public safety is inefficient and comparatively ineffective. But Aldrich also shows that public regulation and the threat of stricter laws were critical to the growth of safety programs. Moreover, small firms, and coal companies as of 1940, never bought the new safety ideology. Even today, with the incentives of workmen's compensation and job safety regulation in place, some workers toil in conditions like those in the bad old days. In short, worker safety remains a problem, and Aldrich's account of how jobs became safer gives little guidance for moving forward. Nevertheless, as a history of trends in job safety, a subject that has received scant scholarly attention, and of the vital part management played in advancing safety, Safety First is informative and persuasive.

Sara E. Wermiel is a historian of technology and a visiting scholar at M.I.T. The focus of her recent research is fire safety in buildings. She is currently finishing a book on the development of the fireproof building in the U.S. in the nineteenth century.
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Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Wermiel, Sara E.
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
Words:875
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