By Greg Williams, BWC Occupational Safety and Hygiene Fellow
When I was little I remember hearing stories of the Industrial Revolution in school. I remember accounts of children, my age or younger, having to go to work to support their families, often in abhorrent conditions.
Eastern Illinois University describes it this way: “Young children working endured some of the harshest conditions. Workdays would often be 10 to 14 hours with minimal breaks during the shift. Factories employing children were often very dangerous places leading to injuries and even deaths. Machinery often ran so quickly that little fingers, arms and legs could easily get caught.”
While working conditions were abhorrent for children, they weren’t any better for their parents. Wages were dismal, hours were long and workplaces put safety on the backburner in favor of production.
One of the worst industrial accidents took place in 1911 in the Triangle Factory in New York City. Cramped conditions, inadequate exits, and an inability of workers to speak out for their safety led to a fire killing scores of workers.
We look back upon these stories and wonder how it could have ever been this way. Who would let a 6-year-old work in a factory? Who would expose workers to such dangerous hazards? Why didn’t someone intervene?
A lot has changed since then. It’s been more than a century, and laws prohibit children from working under a certain age. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates conditions in workplaces around the country. The number of workers losing their lives on the job is lower than it has ever been. Indeed it seems like we have it all figured out, right?
That’s when I think about where we will be a hundred years from now. What conditions do we subject individuals to now that our great-great grandchildren will find appalling? What will they teach in schools in the year 2117 about labor in the year 2017? What are the next steps we should be taking to care for workers in the 21st century?
The answer to this question is simple. Instead of sending workers home the same way we found them, we need to send them home better than we found them. This is the idea behind Total Worker Health, a program put in place by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). This program takes a comprehensive look at worker well-being. Not only does it promote following OSHA standards, but it also advocates proper benefits and policies for employees, commitment to wellness from employers, comprehensive wellness programs for workers, and so much more.
The idea driving this TWH approach is that the workplace is a perfect environment to implement health and safety interventions. It makes sense. The most recent employment statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor show that around 140 million people are currently working in the U.S. American businesses lose trillions of dollars each year in productivity, absenteeism and medical costs. Where better to try and intervene in the health, safety and wellness of individuals than the place they spend half their day?
This mindset led BWC to partner with NIOSH on research and initiatives to better the lives of workers both on and off the clock.
We’re also honored to be part of the NIOSH TWH Affiliate Program and its focus on an integrated approach to protecting and promoting worker well-being.
This article is not about giving a template on how to build a great worksite wellness and safety program. It’s not about telling you everything you need to be doing to promote a healthy workforce. Instead, it’s about the why behind taking the next steps to improve worker health. Indeed when our descendants look back on our generation, we want them to see all the efforts we made to protect and promote the health and well-being of our workers.