If we tried to cover every woman who contributed to improving safety and health in our lives, then we would be here for a while. We did, however, in response to women’s history month, want to mention a few that especially caught our eye. We will go in order of the timeline above to note a few of the achievements these women have accomplished to shape and improve safety culture as we know it.
Martha Coston: Martha was a 21-year-old mother to four children and a widow after her husband Benjamin Coston, a young inventor, died just at the start of their life together. After her husband’s death, Martha found a blueprint for a pyrotechnic flare and was determined to bring the blueprint to life. Through trial and error, Martha found the light, quite literally, and made her vision a reality. These flares were developed as a basis of communication for the U.S. Navy and helped save numerous lives and are still in use today.
Mary Walton: This woman was serious about pollution; noise and air to be exact. Seeing the smog that was produced by factories during the industrial revolution, Mary invented a device that deflected emissions that originally were being released into the air and water tanks that flushed into the cities’ sewage system. Mary then moved on to limit the noise of the clanging trolleys. Working from a model train set she built herself, Mary developed a wooden box that she painted with tar and lined with cotton. She then filled it with sand and much to Mary's expectation, the vibrations had a place to be absorbed.
Frances Perkins: The first woman appointed to a presidential cabinet in the United States. After witnessing the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, Frances famously proclaimed this was “the day the New Deal was born”. A citizen's committee on safety was formed to recommend safer practices and to prevent a repetition of events. Theodore Roosevelt influenced the hiring of Frances as the group’s executive secretary. The commission created a comprehensive set of laws which raised the bar for workplace health and safety throughout the nation. During her time as U.S. Secretary of Labor, she helped craft the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Elizabeth Dole: Elizabeth accomplished a long list of things in her lifetime, a list so long that you can read the National Safety Councils' list of achievements in honor of her. During the first year of her position as U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Elizabeth improved aircraft cabin safety through rulemakings that included making seats less flammable, improving cabin evacuation, and reducing cabin fire risk. While on the topic of aircrafts, she initiated a program of 14,000 additional safety inspections of all airlines. She also established a special task force of safety experts and program analysts to examine safety issues in-depth in each mode of transportation. Elizabeth then became the U.S. Secretary of Labor in 1989 focusing on many safety and health standards and issues. Then in 1991, Elizabeth was appointed as the president of the American Red Cross.
Alexis Herman: While Alexis was serving as Secretary of Labor, she focused on the enforcement of child labor laws such as work restrictions and maximum hours for underaged employees. She additionally supported the United State’s participation in the International Labor Organization's Child Labor Convention, which is designed to protect children under 18 from slavery, trafficking, bondage, and other abuses. One of the most notable takeaways from Alexis Herman’s tenure is that the nation reached the safest workplace record in the history of the department and it reached a thirty-year low for unemployment.
Ellen Ochoa: Dr. Ellen Ochoa is an engineer and former astronaut. Before beginning her career as an astronaut, Dr. Ochoa focused her efforts on optics research. Operating in mission control during the Columbia disaster in 2003, Dr. Ochoa witnessed the tragedy first hand. The incident led her to realize that none of the right conversations were happening in the field which compromised the safety of the crew members on that human space flight. Through her leadership roles at NASA, she helped create a culture of inclusion and raise awareness of unconscious bias. Through this, Dr. Ochoa wanted to see more people speak up when they see something that could potentially compromise their or other’s safety without the fear of being pushed to the side or worry about delaying a timely project. In January 2013, Dr. Ochoa became the director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center until her retirement in 2018.
Hilda Solis: Hilda Solis served as Secretary of Labor during 2009-2013. Solis took control of making dangerous and deadly workplaces safer and in 2011 had one of the safest years on record for the workforce. 2011 saw the fewest ever mine fatalities and industry and construction fatalities at historic lows. Hilda addressed many health and safety cases that needed immediate attention and filed the first enterprise-wide complaint to make sure employers corrected safety hazards at all locations at the same time. Solis put a focus on heat-related illnesses and fatalities among outdoor workers and held summits over the concerns of vulnerable workers in low-wage, high hazard industries including manufacturing, health care, agriculture, and construction.