Why is it useful to study Occupational Health and Safety?

Although history has some evidence of rules that were implemented around working environments especially on ships, it was not until the industrial revolution that people began paying attention to occupational health and safety practices. Yet, it is only in the last 40 years that countries began implementing stricter regulations to keep the workforce safe from both physical and psychological harm.

The industrial age meant that many people had to find work in factories which required them to handle chemicals and heavy machinery. At first, there very little concern for the health and safety of workers; any injury or disease meant that they would lose their job. Times were hard and there would always be another person willing to fulfil their duties; this meant that they would not only be left jobless but also, in many cases, physically unfit to find other work. Other societal issues like lack of education and poverty meant that the majority of people were unskilled and forced to work in circumstances that exposed them to health and safety threats and left them vulnerable to unfair demands and exploitation.

OHS events

The unfortunate consequence of the industrial age was that the labour force were seen only as a commodity to exploit for the maximum profit of industrialists. Very little attention was paid to individual needs and safety; workers were only as useful as their output - should their output be hindered in any way they were let go.

This meant that workers had little job security and had to greatly sacrifice their health and safety to earn a bit of money- workers were not compensated for taking on dangerous work and, in many cases, paid less than a living wage.

Fatigue, lack of safety gear and a lack of occupational health and safety regulations led to many accidents; some permanently injuring people and others fatal.

The onset of WWII meant that many women had to take over jobs that were typically performed by men like handling heavy machinery etc. Therefore, the majority of the workforce were either in the war trenches or exposed to harmful substances and dangers presented by industry. Thus, employers could no longer afford to lose employees due to illness or injury.

South African history

South Africa’s labour history, due to colonialist and Apartheid legislation, meant that the majority of the unskilled workforce were non-white; therefore, the majority of people exposed to health and safety risks were non-white. The Apartheid laws left little room for concern for the non-white unskilled workforce, their working conditions, compensation and general well-being. In 1994 South Africa revised its labour laws and practices to ensure that employees were protected under the same regulations and laws regardless of their race.

Why is the history of occupational health and safety events useful?

Early to recent history of OHS

When we look at the history of occupational health and safety events we get a good idea of how far we have come in terms of labour practices and especially health and safety regulations. We are able to look at events and analyse what happened, what could have prevented it, and how we can use this information to implement better health and safety measures for the present and future. We are also able to identify the vulnerabilities of an industry and the likelihood of certain accidents or threats; thereby we are able to implement industry specific regulations to reduce potential harm.

Contemporary concerns of OHS

Although we have greatly improved our occupational health and safety practices, one of our biggest concerns today is, stress. Many employees struggle with work-related stress; both psychologically and physically. It is important that occupational health and safety representatives, employers and employees work together to identify and find ways to alleviate these stresses in order to ensure higher productivity.

As the occupational health and safety regulations and practices need to continually develop to keep up with workplace and industry changes it is useful look at historical events but it is also important that we need are adaptive in a rapidly changing world which affects our working environments and OHS practices.