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Safety Yesterday and Today

By C. Christopher Patton, CSP American Society of Safety Engineers North American Occupational Safety and Health Week Kick-Off Event at the U.S. Department of Labor, Monday, May 3, 2010 (other ASSE events for the D.C. NAOSH Kick-Off included the Smithsonian, the U.S. Capitol and Sunday at the National Zoo)

Thank you Assistant Secretary Barab. Thank you, Secretary Michaels, the dedicated  OSHA staff, our ASSE members here in the audience, the many Alliance Partner organizations here today and to the talented children who won and  participated in the 8th annual safety-on-the-job poster contest that are here today with their families. We thank you all for all that you do to help us put the spotlight on workplace safety and what occupational safety, health and environmental professionals do to protect people, property and the environment every day and night.

Thank you all for being the backbone behind the North American Occupational Safety and Health Week kick-off -- this week has grown as has the awareness of the importance of being safe at work and of the work we as occupational safety, health and environmental professionals do to protect people, property and the environment ….

You know, close to 100 years ago, in 1911, the American Society of Safety Engineers began in New York City just months after one of the most horrific workplace tragedies in our country’s history….the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire…it was a weekend day….hundreds of  seamstresses were working countless hours to fulfill all the orders for the very popular women’s shirtwaist blouse….despite being warned to do so by the fire department, the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory located in the Asch building in the heart of New York City…did not install fire prevention systems at the factory. This was also despite the request from the workers following a decade of repeated demands by workers and leaders for increased safety efforts.

When the fire began there was no way to escape and only two or three buckets of water were there as protection for a possible fire.

As the fire grew and workers screamed for help thousands of people began to gather on the streets, helplessly and sadly trying to help…the fire department showed up, but their ladder could not reach the 7th floor…many of the workers began to jump to the street and down the elevator shaft to escape the flames…two or three men who had escaped ran back in to help save their co-workers -- yet, they lost their lives – in all a total of 146 young women and men died that day --- many of them had just gotten married, one was to have been married the next week -- a few were never identified.

One woman in that crowd looking on helplessly was Frances Perkins -- she went on to become the first female U.S. Secretary of Labor and the first female member of a U.S. Cabinet serving under President Franklin D. Roosevelt -- because after seeing the horror of that day she committed herself to working to protect workers from that type of catastrophe from ever happening again… Today we sit here in the building named after her – she lived from 1880 until her death in New York City in 1965 at the age of 85.

Perkins was not the only one…. the Triangle disaster created a swell of indignation among those in the U.S. -- families, friends, communities, workers, legislators, regulators, safety professionals, fire and emergency workers and many more. New rules and regulations were quickly adopted ---- and just months after the March 25 tragedy, in October of 1911 the American Society of Safety Engineers was formed by safety professionals and many of those were in the insurance industry--- We have seen major positive safety strides since that time

We know more needs to be done, that’s why we are here today and every May -- to continue to put the spotlight on workplace safety worldwide and to continue to educate businesses, employers and employees about how to be safe at work, the benefits and to educate them on the many resources easily available to all employers and workers on enhancing work place safety today and tomorrow..

Today, close to 300 million people in the U.S. alone go to work and return home safely every day -- injury and illness free -- to their families and friends due, in part, to folks like you sitting in this room --- occupational safety, health and environmental professionals and to smart businesses who get it -- we applaud you

However, 14 people are dying every day from on the job injuries and millions more suffer from workplace related illnesses in the U.S. alone. ASSE and you are always working and striving to find ways to prevent these tragedies from occurring -- looking ahead at possible risks and solutions as new products are developed and more…

We also have successes that don’t make the headlines --- they may not make the headlines, but the children here today have captured many of those successes and key messages in their posters -- messages about being safe at work we need to and will continue to get out to the public -- through NAOSH Week and throughout the year…..

With your help we can make the next 100 years even safer. Especially as I look at all the young people in this room I think that they may be our legacy, perhaps a future safety professional or Frances Perkins.  I thank you all and I applaud you for all that you do to make sure a Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire never happens again. From an ASSE standpoint…Your safety is our business. Your future is our mission.

Thank you all and now I will turn it back to Assistant Secretary Barab…..


Download a copy of the speech (docx)