This is one of the books in the bibliography of Heinrich’s 1931 version of Industrial Accident Prevention. I am trying to follow up all of these books in order to get some measure of their influence on Heinrich’s work. My main focus with this review/summary (and others) is an attempt to distil the main threads and a comparison to Heinrich’s book, and - in a later phase - to the other safety handbooks that came out around the same time.
George Alvin Cowee (1887-1975) was manager of the Bureau of Safety of the Utica Mutual Compensation Insurance Corporation. He would later become Vice President of the company. He was an active writer, but would only write one book on safety. Besides this, Cowee has published on geography (1911), insurance (1942) and banks and stock markets (1931, 1938, 1960).
This book is a rather heavy tome of 27 chapters on over 430 pages, spiced up with 128 illustrations and many example forms. The title lets us know that the focus is on the practical side of safety, and indeed it is a very practical book with a clear structure and a detailed index that should be very helpful in finding an answer to your problem. Mission accomplished thus:
“This book is intended to provide for employers, superintendents, foremen, underwriters, safety inspectors and engineers generally, a convenient summary of standard safety methods and devices as developed and perfected by those who have specialized in this subject. Tried and proven methods and devices are described and exemplified.” and “It reflects the experience, methods and ideas of practical men.” (p.iii)
There is little method and theory or principles (even though Cowee comments that it is impossible to be complete but that one can read the underlying principles from the things discussed). There is also relatively little on organisation. The second chapter covers safety committees, contests, suggestion boxes, campaigns, slogans and the like. In addition, the last couple of chapters cover things like general safety rules, welfare work, medical and physical examinations.
The first introductory chapter touches on several subjects that will return in Heinrich’s work (and that of others) and possibly shaped his thought: “Safety engineering has become a well-established profession.” (p.1) and because “Education is the keynote to universal safety” (p.2) it should become a part of the curriculum at technical schools. Accidents come with huge costs - a “yearly waste” that is “incurred by preventable accidents” (p.1) - “at least ninety percent of all work accidents are actually preventable” (p.2), and therefore “safety is essential to efficiency” and “safety and efficiency go hand in hand” (p.2).
One of the weaknesses (from today’s point of view) of the book is that Cowee rarely offers sources for statements like these - a common issue with literature from that time. This applies also to the following statement that we probably all know with different numbers and different words:
“Approximately thirty percent of industrial accidents are preventable by means of safeguards, if properly used and maintained in good condition. On the other hand, at least sixty percent of these accidents can be eliminated by the proper education of employees pertaining to safety; in other words, teaching employees to be cautious and thoughtful at all times, instructing them to think of their own safety and that of their fellow-workmen, and training them to refrain from taking unnecessary risks.” (p.2)
We can find other themes that would return prominently in Heinrich’s work scattered throughout the book. For example the role of the Foreman:
“Foremen can do much towards securing the interest and support of employees. They can do more than anyone else in the company to make the safety organisation a success.” (p.9)
While other authors would argue that the role of top management is even more important, this reflects well the ‘foreman is key man’ idea. Among their tasks we find “eliminating unsafe conditions and dangerous practices” (p.10), that typical duality that appears almost everywhere and until today and will resonate throughout Heinrich’s work. Chapter 23, dealing with Safety Rules, even has a specific section for foremen. The first rule tells us “Accident prevention is one of the foreman’s most important duties…” (p.368). Much attention is on the supervisory role, instruction and supervision/enforcement of safety rules and there is also a suggestion how to deal with accident repeaters: “If the same men are frequently injured, put them where they cannot get hurt.” (p.368) a suggestion that would be repeated by for example Vernon (1935).
This solution suggests that the human is the problem (which sometimes may be the case) and leads us to another theme, the Human Factor which is scattered throughout the book. Workmen are expected to follow rules for safe practice of which many are found in the book, and if they don’t do this, discipline should be applied (p.34). General Rule #2 from Chapter 23 tells us
“Employees who wilfully disregard these rules, or show contempt for their own or their fellow-workmen’s safety should be discharged. Careless men should be cautioned. If they continue to show that they are a danger to their own and their fellow-workmen’s safety, they should be transferred to positions where there is the least possible chance for them to harm themselves or others, or they should be discharged.” (p.369/370)
There are also sections discussing ignorance, fatigue, concentration, thoughtlessness and carelessness (p.32-34) as general factors in accident prevention. Also instruction and education are important (p.34-36): “Education best insures safety and efficiency. Training the employee is the key to the problem. It is the human element which has the most important bearing upon the case.” (p.271) Cowee tells us in the chapter of railroad safety, connecting to his earlier 60% statement.
By the way, ‘efficiency’ is a term that pops up throughout the book in a kind of buzzword-manner. This makes sense given the emphasis on efficiency around the time. The breakthrough of scientific management was just a few years back (1911-12) and it makes sense for Cowee to connect to this. However, he sometimes uses it in a way that may not resonate with our understanding of the term, e.g. using it as a synonym for effectivity.
Let us have a quick look at the rest of the book. Most of it is these days mainly of historical interest, although some of the hazards and ways of dealing with them are still relevant.
Chapter 3 gives some General Observations about general hazards, the suggestion that guarding should be the first duty despite what is said about education (which also resonates well with Heinrich and others), clothing, the workplace and many of the human factors mentioned above.
After this there are three chapters dealing with buildings, fire hazards and fire drills/brigades.
Then comes a huge collection of technical chapters (7 to 15) dealing with specific groups of hazards, e.g. electricity, elevators, engines, transmissions, machines and the like. Chapter 7 about Boilers is a good example (and also one that imagine was of interest to Heinrich at the time, given his early work as a boiler inspector for Travelers). It is rather long, dealing with one of the ‘Major Accident Hazards’ (to use a modern term) from the period, describing issues in detail with pictures and concluding the chapter with a list of general rules fitting to the subject. Most of the chapters have a similar structure.
The next group of chapters (16 to 20) then deals with specific sectors (e.g. Iron and steel, Construction, Railroad, Mines) and follow a similar structure as the previous chapters.
Ending the book we find a looser collection of chapters discussing Explosives (21), Miscellaneous (22 - e.g. eye protection and other PPE, ladders and handtools), general conditions (24 - e.g. illumination, sanitation and heating), Welfare work (25), Occupational diseases (26 - a short chapter discussing some hazards and protection against them) and finally First Aid (27).
As a final reflection, it is interesting to see that a couple of early safety books was published just before the USA entered World War I. This may partly have been coincidence. The safety movement was a decade and a half old, slowly maturing and developing and gained wider acceptance which is reflected in these books. But the War may have played a role too. Preparations were well underway at the time, producing ammo and supplies for the Allied forces. According to Chase, the War was a positive force in the boost of the efficiency movement and reduction of ‘waste’. It is not hard to imagine that this also may have a positive effect for the safety movement. After all, the safety movement helped to remove the waste of accidents and disturbances (and also, to control the workforce). A similar effect could be observed 30 years down the road with the Second World War
Cowee, G.A. (1916) Practical Safety Methods and Devices. Manufacturing and Engineering. New York: D. Van Nostrand Company.
Read and download the book online:
Swuste et al. discuss Cowee and his contemporaries in their super informative 2010 paper that sheds light on the early safety movement: