THE HISTORY OF SAFETY IN CONSTRUCTION 150 150 White-Spunner Construction

Nowadays having regulated safety standards on the Jobsite is a no-brainer. With all the heavy equipment that’s used and the health hazards, one can face while on the job it’s important the correct standards are put in place to keep everyone out there safe. However, this wasn’t always the case. Travel back with us and explore how the safety regulations that keep our workers’ safe while on the job site came to be.

Late 1800s

While the safety regulations we know today weren’t made mandatory for some time, the ball was set in motion during the late 1800s after the Civil War. Workers began setting aside money and purchasing insurance in case of an accident happening on the job. While some employers would offer this insurance or provide alternative jobs for their injured employee’s workers would often leave high-risk jobs in favor of safer ones. Many employers had to raise wages for such jobs to attract enough workers and this small shift is what started to influence changes in industry policies. Regulatory commissions were formed with the intention of mandating a safer work environment, but they had very little power and were rarely able to exert much influence during this time.


About 300 workers out of every 100,000 were killed on the job annually. That’s almost a death for every single day of the year! At this point in history, workers would need to sue their employers to get compensation for any injuries that happened on the job site. As you can probably guess, workers, winning these cases were often few and far in-between with the compensation pay being no more than half a year’s pay if they were lucky. This changed in the 1910s when New York passed a Worker’s Compensation Law in 1910. This new law required that employers compensate all injuries at a fixed rate. This benefitted both workers and employers. Workers could now receive better and more reliable benefits, while the employers gained more satisfied employees and more predictable cost. By 1921, all except six states had adopted this compensation law into their systems. Other changes to benefit workers were also passed during this time. In 1912, The National Safety Council and The U.S. Department of Labor were founded. The National Safety Council focused on promoting the health and safety of workers, while The U.S. Department of Labor focused on occupational safety as one of its main branches. In 1916, the Federal Compensation Act was established to benefit workers who sustain injuries or contract illnesses when on the job. This act is what lead to the creation of the Office of Worker’s Compensation Program.


Everything changed when the Golden Gate Bridge was being built. While safety measures were in place in jobs before, the Golden Gate Bridge is special because it was the first major construction project to make safety mandatory. Nets—the ones used for acrobatic stunts—were bought from the circus to better ensure that if a worker fell they would be caught, and anyone caught doing high-risk stunts and without their safety gear were immediately dismissed. On jobs prior, there were actual estimates done by the company to account for worker death per millions spent during a project. Chief Engineer Joseph Strauss was determined to make this statistic a thing of the past.

Here’s a list of the mandatory Safety Features:

  • Hard hats
  • Respirator masks for the riveters to prevent the inhalation of lead-tainted fumes
  • Glare-free goggles to enhance visibility and to ward off “snowblindness” created by the water
  • Special hand and face cream to protect skin against the strafing winds
  • Carefully formulated diet to help fight dizziness during construction
  • Sauerkraut juice to “cure” men suffering from hangovers
  • And on-site field hospital, staffed by doctors, located near the construction site
  • A safety net bought from the circus for $130,000; saved 19 lives during construction

At the end of more than four years of construction, there were “only” 11 workplace fatalities during the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. For the record, the industry standard had been incredibly higher before this.


During this time The Occupational Safety and Health Act was passed.

An Act to assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women; by authorizing enforcement of the standards developed under the Act; by assisting and encouraging the States in their efforts to assure safe and healthful working conditions; by providing for research, information, education, and training in the field of occupational safety and health; and for other purposes.

This act leads to the creation of the Nation Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which conducts research and makes safety recommendations. It was a year later that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to “assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education, and assistance.” It is thanks to OSHA that workplace safety inspections have been shown to reduce injury rates and injury costs without negative effects on employment, sale, credit ratings, or company survival.


It was in 1996 that the National Occupational Research Agenda was founded and from then they’ve worked to conduct research that helps in reducing the number of injuries and illnesses at work. Today, only one in seven construction workers are injured while on the job. A big change from how it used to be, and it only gets better as the years go by.