Safety Engineering: Historical Emergence

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The protection of people from harm increasingly has been a focus of many fields of engineering since the nineteenth century. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution (c. 1750–1850) engineers, as the term is used today, devoted their efforts almost entirely to making devices that functioned reliably and profitably, but with little attention to safety. One notable exception is James Watt (1736–1819), the so-called inventor of the steam engine. Despite introducing numerous improvements on the Newcomen steam engine, Watt intentionally resisted building a high-pressure engine because of the dangers it posed to those working with it. In fact, when Richard Trevithick (1771–1833) began experiments with the high-pressure steam engine, which increased both efficiency and power, Watt (and his partner Matthew Boulton) petitioned Parliament to pass an act outlawing the use of such engines as a public danger.

The second generation masters of steam power for railroads and steam boats thus brought with them boiler explosions, brakeman maimings, and wrecks causing astonishing loss of life. In Life on the Mississippi (1883) and again in Huckleberry Finn (1894) Mark Twain described in vivid detail the explosion of steam ships and the resultant death and injury of passengers. Manufactories too subjected workers (and often those living nearby) to industrial accidents, toxic fumes, and loss of hearing. Although those risks were hardly unknown, they were accepted by workers and the public as a necessary concomitant to technological progress.

However, over the course of the nineteenth century the protection of human safety became an increasingly important priority for engineers, companies, and eventually federal and state governments. Indeed, the first scientific research contract from the federal government was issued to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia in 1830 to investigate the causes of steamboat boiler explosions and to propose solutions (Burke 1966).

As each new technology matured to the point where advances in performance were incremental, a poor safety record became a barrier to increased public acceptance and use. Workers began to organize into unions and insist that they be better protected from workplace hazards. Engineering societies, whose original charters tended to stress the promotion and facilitation of the profession's work, by the mid-twentieth century began to impose safety as a primary ethical duty of the engineer. The end of the nineteenth century also witnessed the development of safety codes and standards governing the use of natural gas and electricity, the design of building and steam boilers, and the storage and use of explosives.

In the twenty-first century nearly every engineering code of ethics stresses the safety of workers and the public. The American Nuclear Society's Code of Ethics (2003) states:

We hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public and fellow workers, work to protect the environment, and strive to comply with the principles of sustainable development in the performance of our professional duties. The first commitment in the Code of Ethics for the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers mandates that members ... accept responsibility in making engineering decisions consistent with the safety, health and welfare of the public, and to disclose promptly factors that might endanger the public or the environment (Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers 1990).

All licensed professional engineers are bound by the Code of Ethics for Engineers promulgated by the National Society of Professional Engineers. Both Fundamental Canon No. 1 and the first Rule of Practice impose on the engineer a duty to "hold paramount the safety, health and welfare of the public" (National Society of Professional Engineers 2003).

Apart from these commitments by long-standing communities of engineers there are many engineers whose work is devoted entirely to the protection of the public and workers from the hazards of technology and natural phenomena: Fire protection engineering, automobile safety engineering, and industrial safety engineering are a few examples. Safety engineering is itself an engineering discipline; its practitioners attempt to understand the ways in which technological systems fail and discover ways to prevent such failures. The American Society of Safety Engineers, founded in 1911 and now numbering over 30,000 members, is devoted to being "the premier organization and resource for those engaged in the practice of protecting people, property and the environment, and to lead the profession globally" (American Society of Safety Engineers 2004).

The intertwining of engineering and safety probably will intensify in the future in response to constantly rising public expectations. Two prominent engineering scholars in Lancaster University's Department of Engineering have observed the large gap between the safety expectations of today and those in the early days of modern technologies:

Safety is rapidly becoming a means by which the public and governments judge the viability of organisations involved in safety-related processes, possibly more so than environmental issues. Many large organisations could not afford a single, large-scale incident as a result of an inferior safety culture, despite buoyant economics. This is a significant dynamic departure from past public acceptability of fatal incidents (Joyce and Seward 2004).

The dedication of the engineering profession to safety as a primary goal and an ethical duty is in accordance with this change in public expectations.


SEE ALSO Engineering Ethics;Safety Factors.


Burke, John G. (1966). "Bursting Boilers and the Federal Power." Technology and Culture 7:1 (1–23). A widely reprinted article. For critical comment, see Richard N. Langlois, David J. Denault, and Samson M. Kimenyi, "Bursting Boilers and the Federal Power Redux: The Evolution of Safety on the Western Waters," University of Connecticut Department of Economics Working Papers Series (May 1994).

Joyce, Malcolm J., and Derek W. Seward. (2002). "Innovative M.Sc. in Safety Engineering—A Model for Industry-Based Courses in the 21st Century?" Engineering Education 2002: Professional Engineering Scenarios 2002/056: (2: 28/6).


American Nuclear Society. Code of Ethics. (2003). Available at

American Society of Safety Engineers. (2004). Vision Statement. Available at

Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. Code of Ethics. (1990). Available at

National Society of Professional Engineers. Code of Ethics. (2003). Available at