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Little Known Historic Facts about Women and Occupational Safety

By Sally Murdoch

Women and occupational safety

Do women make the world a safer place? While you ponder the answer to that question, here are five tidbits on women and safety in recognition of National Women’s History Month by Graphic Products, a female-owned safety company.

1. Girls Working in Button Factories Frequently Lost Their Fingers

It may go without saying that working conditions are much safer in factories now than they were 120 years ago. But how bad were things for young girls working in factories? An 1875 Massachusetts report entitled "Special Effects of Certain Forms of Employment upon Female Health" showed that girls working in Boston factories had deteriorating health conditions. The physical demands on their bodies, 12- to 14-hour workdays, and generally unhealthy conditions made them sick constantly. In the cotton mills, billowing dust, excessive heat and humidity, and hard, mono­tonous work were "quite sufficient to wage successful war upon the general health," and particularly on women's reproductive systems. Typography, tele­graphy, and sewing machine labor were particularly hard on young women.

Making matters worse, Department of Labor (DOL) historical record explains that "Many of the females questioned frequently got their fingers smashed or cut off from the punch presses in button factories. They reported that the factory gave free dressings the first three times an employee was injured, but after that the injured girl had to pay for her own.”

2. The Bureau of Labor Standards Was Created by a Woman

In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins to serve as Secretary of Labor, the first woman to serve as a member of the Cabinet. According to (DOL) historic record, “Perkins, who had served brilliantly under him as New York State Commissioner of Labor while he was governor, was the logical choice and Labor was the logical place. She served as Secretary of Labor during the entire Roosevelt Administration, from 1933 to 1945. She served longer than any other Secretary in DOL's history."

To strive to make the American workplace “as safe as science and law can make them,” Perkins created the Bureau of Labor Standards in 1934, the first permanent federal agency established primarily to promote workers' safety and health. Occupational safety and health would later move from the responsibility of the Bureau of Labor Standards to a newly created agency, OSHA, in April 1971.

3. Iconic Rosie the Riveter Poster Began as Internal Morale Builder

Rosie the Riveter "We Can Do It" poster

“We Can Do It!” was one of dozens of posters that were hung about the Westinghouse factory during WWII, meant to inspire workers patriotically, thereby boosting morale. Because men were fighting overseas, women were encouraged to do heavy industrial work back home in the U.S. One of many posters designed by an in-house graphic artist at Westinghouse, the Rosie the Riveter poster was not intended for a wide audience, and in fact was displayed for only two weeks at the Westinghouse factory, a historical article explains. Rosie the Riveter later became the subject and title of a song and a Hollywood movie during the war, as well as the inspiration behind a Norman Rockwell painting.

Sadly, the article also notes that during this time, workplace accidents were common because most women were not given proper safety gear.

4. Jimmy Carter’s OSHA Nomination Makes The Crowd Go Wild

In 1977, President Jimmy Carter held a town hall meeting with DOL employees, telling them he would be choosing a woman to assume the role of OSHA Director. The crowd erupted into applause. Eula Bingham, Ph.D., was appointed head of OSHA that year, after being personally interviewed in the White House by President Carter—only six years after the agency was born.

5. Although Women Work Almost as Many Hours as Men, Fatal Accidents Are Much More Infrequent

In recent history, According to the DOL’s yearly report, 2015 work fatalities increased over 2014 totals. While women accounted for 43 percent of all hours worked in 2015, they accounted for only 7 percent of all fatal injuries.

OSHA Upholds Safety for Men and Women Across the U.S.

Today’s working conditions continue to become safer across many industries, and OSHA ensures workers’ safety and health are upheld. Occupational injuries and illnesses cost employers more than $53 billion each year in workers' compensation costs alone. Exposing workers to danger is an expensive choice. If you want to see where last year’s violations occurred, and to avoid your own violations, download Graphic Products' free Guide to the Top 10 OSHA Violations.

More about Graphic Products

Graphic Products is an innovative leader, providing solutions for safety and visual communication. Founded in Beaverton, Oregon in 1970, Graphic Products places safety and protection of human lives as its number one priority. The company's full line of safety products and services are designed for the modern workforce. Graphic Products leads the industry with safety training materials, educational resources, and up-to-date news and compliance information on topics like arc flash, chemical labeling, and pipe marking.

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