Occupational Medicine Practice in the United States Since the Industrial Revolution

J Occup Environ Med. 2005 Feb;47(2):115-31. doi: 10.1097/01.jom.0000152918.62784.5a.


Objectives: Occupational medicine lies at the interface between work and health. Not only do workplace hazards impact health, but our state of health influences our ability to get to work, to perform work, to tolerate work, and to gain a measure of satisfaction from the work we do. Comprehensive occupational medicine requires familiarity with the work that patients do; knowledge of the workplace itself and its hazards; appreciation of the social forces that shape work; and understanding of how chemical, physical, biologic, mechanical, and psychosocial agents influence health. Many practitioners who treat injured workers or provide disability assessments have no more formal training in occupational medicine than primary care physicians in general, which limits the quality, or at least the scope, of the care they give to workers.

Methods: This history has been compiled from books, journals, letters and recollections. A subset of journal issues from each decade after 1910 has been systematically reviewed, making no attempt to read through every issue.

Results: Industrial medicine as we recognize it began in the late-1800s, grew rapidly in the early and mid-1900s, and peaked toward the end of the 20th century, when American corporations began to outsource medical services, supporting the rise of free-standing industrial medicine facilities, chains of which now operate profitably throughout the country. Many of these facilities emphasize injury treatment, work hardening, and physical therapy rather than disease recognition and prevention. Occupational medicine is one of the very few medical specialties to be underserved. Board-certified specialists are relatively few, and when supply falls short of demand, the demand has tended to lower its sights.

Conclusions: Occupational medicine has always been influenced by economics, politics, and changing patterns of employment, and today these forces include managed care, weakened unions, outsourcing and contract labor, and a generally growing political and social conservatism, not to mention multinational corporations. The globalization of manufacture and economics facilitated by rapid population growth in poor nations assures an unending supply of cheap labor, allowing limited attention to hazard control, thereby impeding progress in occupational health and safety. Some corporations are meeting the challenge of protecting their international workforce. Many, probably most, have not yet achieved this.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Certification
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • Occupational Medicine / history*
  • Occupational Medicine / trends
  • United States
  • United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration / legislation & jurisprudence
  • United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration / standards