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Blood on the Floor: A History of Labor Day, Safety and Health in North America

Sandy Smith

September 2, 2019 marks the 125th anniversary of Labor Day

Labor Day, the first Monday in September, is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American and Canadian workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our countries.

Beginning in the late 19th century, as the trade union and labor movements grew, trade unionists proposed that a day be set aside to celebrate labor. "Labor Day" was promoted by the Central Labor Union and the Knights of Labor, which organized the first parade in New York City.

Canada's Labour Day also is celebrated on the first Monday of September. More than 80 countries celebrate International Workers' Day on May 1 – the ancient European holiday of May Day. (May Day was chosen by the Second Internationale of socialist and communist parties to commemorate the Haymarket incident, which occurred in Chicago on May 4, 1886.)

From the Industrial Revolution to the Industrial Internet of Things, work and workers have evolved in the past 125 years. Here is a look back at the milestones and innovations that have fueled workplace safety and health in North America and around the world.

Spring 1882 - Peter J. McGuire, a vice president of the American Federation of Labor, proposed a “general holiday for the laboring classes” to the Central Labor Union (CLU) of New York, which would begin with a street parade of organized labor solidarity and end with a picnic fundraiser for local unions.

September 5, 1884 – The Central Labor Union (CLU) of New York held a public parade of various labor organizations Subsequently, CLU Secretary Matthew Maguire proposed that a national Labor Day holiday be held on the first Monday of each September to mark this successful public demonstration.

May 4, 1886 – The Haymarket incident - At a time when most American laborers – adults and children - worked 12 or more hours a day/seven days a week, thousands of workers protested across the United States to demand an eight-hour workday. In what became known as the Haymarket incident, police in Chicago attacked peaceful protests and a planning meeting, killing six. An initially peaceful protest the next evening in Haymarket Square turned violent when a bomb killed a police officer. Police opened fire and the ensuing violence led to the deaths of about a dozen workers and police.

December 1872 - The origins of Labour Day in Canada can be traced back to December 1872 when a parade was staged in support of the Toronto Typographical Union's strike for a 58-hour work-week, almost a full decade before a similar event in New York City by the American Knights of Labor, a late 19th-century U.S. labor federation, launched the movement towards the American Labor Day holiday.

March 25, 1872 – The Toronto Typographical Union goes on strike over its demands for a nine-hour workday. Union activity then being a criminal offence, 24 members of the strike committee are jailed for conspiracy as a result of legal action taken by the editor of The Globe, Liberal Party leader George Brown. The protests that follow Brown's actions lead to Parliament passing the Trade Unions Act on June 14 which legalizes trade unions.

May 3, 1887 – Explosives were laid improperly deep underground at the Nanaimo mine in Nanaimo, British Columbia. The resulting explosion killed 150 miners. Only seven miners survived and the mine burned for one full day. Although many miners died instantly, others were trapped by the explosion. These men wrote farewell messages to their families in the dust of their shovels.

May 11, 1894 – The Pullman strike - The bloody Pullman strike of 1894 catalyzed the establishment of an official Labor Day holiday in the United States. The strike happened in the company town of Pullman, Chicago, a factory location established by luxury railroad car manufacturer the Pullman Company. Company owner George Pullman lived in a mansion while most laborers stayed in barracks-style dormitories. When a nationwide depression struck in 1893, Pullman decided to cut costs by lowering wages by almost 30 percent while maintaining high rents for workers. These conditions ultimately led workers to strike on May 11, 1894.

May 11-July 20, 1894 – National Railroad Strike - The pullman walkout gained the support of the nationwide American Railroad Union (ARU), which declared that ARU members would no longer work on trains that included Pullman cars. That national boycott would end up bringing the railroads west of Chicago to a standstill and led to 125,000 workers across 29 railroad companies to quit their jobs rather than break the boycott. Thirty people were killed in riots and sabotage that caused $80 million in damages.

June 28, 1894 – U.S. President Grover Cleveland signed a law making the first Monday in September of each year a national holiday.

March 25, 1911 - Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire - The turning point for occupational safety and health arguably was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in lower Manhattan on March 25, 1911, when 146 garment workers lost their lives attempting to escape the burning building. Fire exit doors were locked and other doors only opened inward, making it impossible for the onrush of workers to open the doors. A few months after the fire, the oldest professional safety society in the United States, now known as the American Society of Safety Professionals, was formed.

1914 – The Workmen's Compensation Act, the first social insurance legislation in Canadian history, was adopted by the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.

1930s – Hawk’s Nest Tragedy - A subsidiary of Union Carbide was hired to drill a tunnel through a mountain in the Hawk's Nest area near Gauley Bridge, W.Va. The mountain's rock had a very high silica content and workers spent 8 to 10 hours a day breathing the silica dust without any respiratory protection. Hundreds of workers died in the course of the project and were buried in unmarked graves. This led to the founding of the Air Hygiene Foundation in 1935, which sought to develop workplace standards, conduct research and develop workplace standards.

1960s - Disabling injuries in the United States increased 20 percent during the decade, and 14,000 workers were dying on the job each year. Congressman William A. Steiger worked for passage of a bill to address work-related deaths. "In the last 25 years, more than 400,000 Americans were killed by work-related accidents and disease, and close to 50 million more suffered disabling injuries on the job," he pointed out during the debate.

December 29, 1970 - President Richard M. Nixon signed The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. The Act established three permanent agencies: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Occupational Safety and the Health Review Commission (OSHRC), an independent agency to adjudicate enforcement actions challenged by employers.

April 1971 – OSHA opens for business, covering 56 million workers at 3.5 million workplaces. Today, 105 million private-sector workers and employers at 6.9 million sites look to OSHA for guidance on workplace safety and health issues.

May 29, 1971 - OSHA published its first consensus standards. Some of those standards, including permissible exposure limits for more than 400 toxic substances, remain in effect today. OSHA's first original standard limited worker exposure to asbestos, a proven carcinogen.

1992 – Intelex, global leader in the development of EHS and quality software, was founded.

1995 – The first modern collision warning system was demonstrated.

2010-2020 – The rise of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT), which refers to interconnected sensors, instruments, tablets, smart phones and other devices networked together with computers' industrial applications to collect what is known as “big data.”

2015-2017 – High-tech wearables that monitor workers’ movements and even vital signs become more prevalent in the workplace.

March 25, 2016 – Eighty-five years after 1,000 workers died of silicosis at Hawk’s Nest, WVa, OSHA publishes respirable crystalline silica rule, impacting approximately 2 million construction workers.


August 28, 2019 @ 08:30 AM EDT Manufacturing, Metals and Mining, Construction Health & Safety

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