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Havoc and Reform

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Havoc and Reform

Workplace Disasters in Modern America

How disasters—that have wrecked work sites throughout American history, in all parts of the nation and all sectors of the economy—have also inspired policy reform.

Workplace disasters have wreaked havoc on countless American workers and their families. They have resulted in widespread death and disability, as well as the loss of property and savings. These tragic events have also inspired safety reforms that reshaped labor conditions in ways that partially compensated for death, suffering, and social dislocation. In Havoc and Reform, James P. Kraft encourages readers to think about such disastrous events in new ways. Placing the problem of workplace safety in historical context, Kraft focuses on five catastrophes that shocked the nation in the half century after World War II, a time when service-oriented industries became the nation's leading engines of job growth.

Looking to growing areas of economic life in the Western Sunbelt, Kraft touches on the 1947 explosion of the Texas City Monsanto Chemical Company plant; the 1956 airliner collision over the Grand Canyon; the hospital collapses following the 1971 San Fernando earthquake; the 1980 fire at the Las Vegas MGM Grand; and the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building. These incidents destroyed places of employment that seemed safe and affected a relatively wide range of working people, including highly trained, salaried professionals and blue- and white-collar groups. And each took a toll on the general public, increasing fears that anyone could be in danger of being killed or injured, putting added pressure on public officials to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

As Kraft considers how these tragedies transformed individual lives and specific work environments, he describes how employees, employers, and public leaders reacted to each event. Presented chronologically, his studies offer a unique and sobering outlook on the rise of a now vital, integral part of the national economy. They also underscore the ubiquity and persistence of workplace disasters in American history while building on and challenging literature about the impact of World War II in the American West. Within a broader frame, they speak to the double-edged nature of modern life.