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What is the American Society of Safety Engineers?

Founded in 1911

Today, millions of people leave work injury and illness free every day to return home safely due, in part, to the commitment of the occupational safety, health and environmental (SH&E) practitioners who work day in and day out identifying hazards and implementing safety advances in all industries and at all workplaces, thereby enhancing work safety and preventing workplace fatalities and injuries.

Founded in 1911, the Des Plaines, Illinois-based American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) is the oldest professional safety society and represents more than 35,000 SH&E practitioners committed to protecting people, property and the environment and are at the forefront of safety engineering, design, standards development, management and education in virtually every industry, governmental agency, labor and in institutions of higher education. Presently, ASSE has several chapters, sections and student sections around the globe with members in over 80 countries. ASSE members can be found in the U.S. and several other countries including Mexico, Ecuador, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, Australia, Kuwait and Egypt. In addition, ASSE is the Secretariat for eleven American National Standards Institute (ANSI) committees responsible for more than 100 occupational safety and health standards. ASSE members also serve on over 40 safety and health standards committees including three with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

ASSE was founded on October 14, 1911 in New York City as the United Association of Casualty Inspectors with 62 members soon after the tragic fire that occurred on March 25, 1911, when 146 garment workers, women and men, died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Many died in the factory, many jumped from the ninth floor to their deaths onto the concrete over 100 feet below rather than burn alive and many jumped into the elevator shaft to their deaths trying to escape the fire. The factory was in the Asch building in New York City, now part of New York University and still exists today. At the time of the fire the factory fire exit doors were locked and the doors that were not locked only opened inwards and were effectively held shut by the onrush of workers trying to escape the fire. At the time of the fire the only safety measures available for the workers were 27 buckets of water.

Further hindering their escape was the fact that the ninth floor fire escape in the Asch building led nowhere and collapsed when used. And factory workers waiting for help at the windows for the rescue workers watched helplessly as the firefighters found their ladders were too short to reach the stranded workers and the water from the hoses could not reach the top floors.

Though most people were outraged with the death of 146 garment workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, mostly young girls, there were no regulations in effect that would have saved their lives.

The fire did lead to legislation requiring improved factory safety standards and helped spur the growth of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the Women’s Trade Union League. It also greatly affected the onlookers who watched helplessly as the workers jumped out the windows to their deaths, some in groups, that spring day. Frances Perkins, the first female cabinet member and Secretary of Labor, began her commitment to workplace safety and health soon after witnessing the tragic 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire from the street below. The U.S. Department of Labor building in Washington, D.C., is named after her.

Another example of dangerous workplaces during the time was the fact that prior to the establishment of the Bureau of Mines by Congress, 13,228 miners were killed in U.S. coalmines from 1906 through 1911.

In 1914 the United Association of Casualty Inspectors changed its name to the present American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) and headquarters were established in New York City. Information about ASSE and its benefits spread by word of mouth as more states passed workers compensation laws and insurance companies hired more inspectors. As the SH&E profession grew over the decades so too did the practitioners’ commitment to increasing workplace safety resulting in an increased public awareness of occupational safety, health and environmental issues and their impact on everyone’s quality of life.

The safety professional is defined as “an individual, qualified by education, training and experience, who in working with and through others, and following a Code of Professional Conduct, helps to identify hazards and develop appropriate controls for these hazards, that when effectively implemented, prevent occupational injury, illness and property damage.”

Today the U.S. is witnessing a decline in workplace fatalities, however in 2010 a total of 4,547 people died from on-the-job injuries, that’s 12 people a day, and millions more suffered on-the-job injuries and illnesses. ASSE members continue to work with businesses, employers and employees, regulators, legislators, on all levels to increase workplace safety for all – whether that workplace is in a squad car or on the roadway, at a desk, on the manufacturing floor, in the fields, in the mines, or on the waterways, etc.

However, in 2011 ASSE officials noted, “The fact that this nation’s workplace fatalities are not significantly decreasing should be a call for action, not complacency, especially at an economically challenging time when some of the most dangerous industries are not at full employment. A statistical plateau of worker fatalities is not an achievement but evidence that this nation’s effort to protect workers is stalled. The time has come for all stakeholders in occupational safety and health to come down off the plateau of acceptance and work together to find conciliatory ways that help make sure our economy, our jobs and corporate bottom lines can benefit from a safe and healthy workforce.”

Through ASSE, members have the opportunity to network with peers in all industries globally, to continually increase their knowledge through several ASSE professional development programs,  seminars and executive programs, through participation in the consensus development of workplace standards, participating in niche industry efforts through the ASSE practice specialties area where experts help develop ASSE SH&E position papers and policy statements on all manners of occupational safety, health and the environment. At the same time members are able to promote the positive affect of workplace safety and the ASSE profession by raising public awareness through various ASSE programs, through their chapters and individually as well.

As the 20th century progressed ASSE grew and then faced setbacks. With the beginning of World War I the number of members swelled with representatives from the railroads, mining, steel, and chemical industries joining. In 1917 America’s entrance into the war diminished membership as interest lagged and many workers entered the armed forces. In 1918, with the end of the war, depression and lack of safety jobs in insurance or war industries almost caused the dissolution of ASSE. The main sources of safety awareness at that time in the workforce consisted of posters and safety training for supervisors. Here are some of ASSE’s organizational highlights:

  • In 1919 ASSE published Safety Engineering, its first official publication, and began to grow as a national organization.
  • In 1921 membership reached 2,500 and research into important eye protection began.
  • In October of 1924 the Engineering Section of the National Safety Council (NSC) merged with ASSE. The national headquarters relocated to Chicago. At that time, the first respirators appeared to replace handkerchiefs as protection for workers in chemical plants. The first ASSE chapters- Boston and Metropolitan, New York- were created.
  • In 1933 companies began maintaining interest in safety by using safety contests and appointing safety managers to analyze accidents, hold meetings for operating executives, making plant inspections, developing policy statements, printing safety posters and developing safety slogans. Also, a theory that accidents are a product of environmental pressures began to emerge, as well as a focus on workers’ attitudes, training and unsafe acts.
  • In 1935 a threshold limit value (TLV) was developed for carbon tetrachloride and other chemicals. Health hazards were emphasized.
  • In 1936 the federal government passed the Walsh-Healey Act, which applied the first standards for safety and health to firms that had business with the government.
  • In 1937 ASSE became involved in industrial standards development. While around half of the members worked in insurance, many also worked in transportation and heavy machinery.
  • In 1940, ASSE had 2,000 members in 11 chapters. Data sheets, pamphlets, and safety training materials were developed. More public concern for on-the-job health emerged as solvents appeared in the workplace. The National Committee for Conservation of Manpower in Defense Industries formed and conducted over 100 training classes. Safety and health practitioners investigated accidents and trained employees. Research into plastic eye protection, safety belts, harnesses and accessories accelerated, while at the same time the cost of workplace accidents were rising.
  • In 1942 membership reached 2,459. While the war once again took people out of the workplace and into the military, others joined the SH&E profession because of the Walsh-Healey requirements on private business.
  • In 1947 ASSE reestablished itself as an independent organization, separate from NSC. ASSE participated in standards development and President Harry Truman’s Special Commission on Safety and Health. The G.I. Bill provided educational opportunities for former servicemen and many entered the occupational safety and health profession. Companies began to emphasize safety training for all employees.
  • In 1949 ASSE held its first elections. Membership reached almost 4,000.
  • In the 1950’s, businesses’ emphasis on total safety programs increased as management viewed safety as a resource and a management function and in 1952 membership jumped to 6,000.
  • In 1956 the Journal of the American Society of Safety Engineers was introduced as a quarterly supplement to the National Safety News. It became an independent monthly publication in 1961.
  • In 1958 ASSE conducted research with the Air Force, which led to advances in fall protection belts and harnesses that were later realized in American National Standards.
  • In 1964 ASSE assisted in the revision of the Walsh-Healey Act. A heavy emphasis on education for safety professionals began. Systems safety management emerged with the advent of the U.S. space program and membership climbed to 8,000.
  • In 1967 the headquarters moved to Park Ridge, a suburb of Chicago on October 21.
  • In 1968 ASSE backed the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act, which created both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupation Safety and Health (NIOSH), and was passed in December 1970.

The OSH Act of 1970 is:
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSH Act) covers all employers and their employees in the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and other U.S. territories. Coverage is provided either directly by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or by an OSHA‑approved state job safety and health plan. Employees of the U.S. Postal Service also are covered. The Act defines an employer as any "person engaged in a business affecting commerce who has employees, but does not include the U.S. or any state or political subdivision of a State." Therefore, the Act applies to employers and employees in such varied fields as manufacturing, construction, long shoring, agriculture, law and medicine, charity and disaster relief, organized labor and private education.

The Act does not cover self-employed persons; farms which employ only immediate members of the farmer's family; and, industries in which other federal agencies, operating under the authority of other federal laws, regulate working conditions. This category includes most working conditions in mining, nuclear energy and nuclear weapons manufacture, and many aspects of the transportation industries. The Act does not cover employees of state and local governments, unless they are in one of the states with OSHA-approved safety and health plans.

Basic Provisions/Requirements -- The Act assigns OSHA two regulatory functions: setting standards and conducting inspections to ensure that employers are providing safe and healthful workplaces. OSHA standards may require that employers adopt certain practices, means, methods or processes reasonably necessary and appropriate to protect workers on the job. Employers must become familiar with the standards applicable to their establishments and eliminate hazards. Compliance with standards may include ensuring that employees have and use personal protective equipment when required for safety or health. Employees must comply with all rules and regulations that apply to their own actions and conduct. Even in areas where OSHA has not set forth a standard addressing a specific hazard, employers are responsible for complying with the OSH Act's "general duty" clause. The general duty clause [Section 5(a)(1)] states that each employer "shall furnish . . . a place of employment which is free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees."

States with OSHA‑approved job safety and health plans must set standards that are at least as effective as the equivalent federal standard. Most of the state-plan states adopt standards identical to the federal ones (three states, New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, have plans which cover only public sector employees).

OSHA regulations cover such items as recordkeeping, reporting and posting.

Each year, the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) conducts a national survey of workplace injuries and illnesses. Participants are selected by the individual states, and all employers selected for the survey, even those usually exempt from the record-keeping requirements, must maintain these records. Before the end of the year, OSHA notifies all selected employers to begin keeping records during the coming year.

ASSE members are not only knowledgeable about the OSH Act and the rules and regulations governing workplace safety, but also are aware of the fact that in the past some growth in the safety profession was regulatory-driven, but today it just makes good business sense to protect people in the workplace. According to OSHA, workplace deaths, illnesses and injuries cost the nation an estimated $170 billion dollars every year. It is estimated that for every $1 invested in a safety and health program, $4 to $6 is saved because injuries, illnesses and fatalities decline, and medical costs and workers’ compensation costs decrease while employee morale and productivity increases and turnover is reduced.

  • As the SH&E profession grew so too did a need to define skills and competency. In 1967, an Ad Hoc study committee was appointed by ASSE to look into the feasibility of a professional certification program and to determine the methods for establishing one. The committee recommended designating a corporation in the state of Illinois, independent of ASSE, with the purpose of examining and certifying the qualifications of safety practitioners. In July 1969, nine leading professionals representing a cross-section of safety specialists and holding memberships in other professional societies representing the diverse disciplines in the safety profession became the initial directors of this new organization, the Board of Certified Safety Professionals (BCSP), and the certification program was underway. Today, the Certified Safety Professional (CSP) designation has become the mark of the professional within the safety field and is now recognized internationally as well.
  • In 1971 President Nixon appointed three ASSE members to various OSHA positions, including the Assistant Secretary of Labor. The membership grew to over 10,000.
  • In 1974 the ASSE journal was expanded and its name changed to Professional Safety. In 1979 over 100 chapters existed and membership exceeded 15,500 with a budget of over $1 million.
  • In 1977, Congress passed the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act consolidating federal safety and health regulations of the mining industry to include coal and non-coal mining.
  • As ASSE grew, in 1985 the headquarters were relocated to their present location in Des Plaines, Illinois on November 8. Also, divisions were created in such areas as transportation, international, health, etc. in order to address specialized technical interests of ASSE members.
  • In 1986 ASSE signed a contract with NIOSH to develop an accident potential recognition program.
  • In 1990 the ASSE Foundation was established. The Foundation advances occupational safety, health and environmental development, research and education by funding scholarships, fellowships, research grants, and internships. That same year, ASSE membership totaled 24,000 in 128 chapters.
  • In 1996 a restructure proposal created a streamlined organization to respond rapidly to changing member needs. Four councils manage functional areas and the number of Board members and long-term standing committees were reduced.

Throughout the existence of ASSE, its members have served on federal committees, supported key safety, health and environmental legislation, participated in international safety and health efforts, raised awareness of occupational safety and health issues with the public, produced key technical publications and provides professional development opportunities across all levels of the profession. ASSE and its members have played a key role in the development of several major national standards.

Working with the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering (CSSE), ASSE began promoting the May North American Occupational Safety and Health (NAOSH, www.asse.org/naosh) Week in early 2000. Hundreds of thousands of people, businesses, members and non-members alike, including OSHA, work together during NAOSH Week to raise awareness of the importance of workplace safety to everyone and the profession. They do this through community meetings, fairs, school activities, safety fashion shows and more. Kick-off events are usually held in Washington, D.C. at the U.S. Capitol. The annual international ASSE kid’s ‘safety-on-the-job’ poster contest for children aged 5-14 has also grown, garnering entrants and winners from several countries, including the U.S. It is another tool ASSE and its members use to educate children about SH&E and the SH&E field. ASSE also celebrates Occupational Safety and Health Professional Day the Wednesday of NAOSH Week.

In 2003 and 2005 the U.S. Congress recognized NAOSH Week, the SH&E profession and ASSE in a Senate Resolution stating ... “the Senate commends ASSE, its members and safety and health professionals for their ongoing commitment to protecting people, property and the environment.” Additionally, each year hundreds of ASSE members’ children, grandkids, nieces and nephews enter the annual kids’ ‘Safety-on-the-Job’ poster contest, as part of NAOSH Week and to educate our youth on the importance of being safe.

In 1999 ASSE established the Professional Safety Academy (PSA) to offer a higher level of career support to ASSE members and the profession. The program includes an annual Professional Development Conference and Exposition, as well as multiple other workshops and seminars all over the country.

ASSE and its members continue to work towards increasing workplace safety and health and raising awareness globally. Throughout history, the safety profession and safety professionals have attempted to improve working conditions. Through these efforts, many lives are saved each day. However, this work is not complete. Until each worker returns home in the same condition s/he came to work in, ASSE and its members still have a formidable task at hand. For more information and milestones please go to www.asse.org and to view the ‘ASSE – A Century of Safety’ video go to www.asse.org/newsroom.

In June of 2011, the ASSE Safety 2011 Professional Development Conference and Exposition and 100th anniversary celebration in Chicago drew the highest number of conference attendees, 4400, setting a record.

ASSE and its members continue to move forward identifying and addressing new workplace risks, sharing their SH&E knowledge and working to make sure that their co-workers always leave work injury and illness free to return home to their families.