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Roots of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Safety and Occupational Health Program began by ambitious Army captain in 1933

Published Feb. 7, 2019

   The mission of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Safety and Occupational Health is to provide policy, programs, technical services, oversight and outreach related to safety and occupational health matters in support of USACE missions worldwide.

  The Corps’ safety bible, EM 385-1-1, states: “The provisions of this manual implement and supplement the safety and health standards and requirements referenced above. Where more stringent safety and occupational health standards are set forth in these requirements and regulations, the more stringent standards shall apply.

   The roots of USACE safety dates back to July 3, 1933 when an ambitious Army captain named Lucius Clay, by direction from the Chief of Engineers, wrote a circular letter stressing the need for a safety program within the Corps.  In his report he used a quotation from the Sixteenth Annual report of the U.S. Employees’ Compensation Commission of 1932:

   “During 1931 the War Department reported the largest number of approved fatal cases, namely 71, and the Engineer Office of that department alone reported 55 of these cases.” 

   Clay went on to write that “in the entire government service there were 210 approved fatal cases in 1931 so that the Engineer Department was responsible for about 26 percent of all fatalities.” He stated that the average cost of each Engineer case to the government was estimated at $7,500 ($124,000 in todays dollars*), making the estimated cost of fatalities charged against the Engineer department, $412,500 ($6.8 million*).  Adding to this 38 permanently partial disability cases, at an estimated cost of $30,400 ($502,000*) and 1130 temporary total disability cases at an estimated cost of $146,400 $30,400 ($2.4 million*) the total cost of compensation for the calendar year 1931 was $599,300 ($9.9 million*).

   According to Clay, a table in the circular showed the injury record for the U.S. Navy, total War and Engineer Departments for the calendar years 1928-1929 and 1930. It showed a slight increase in deaths in the Engineer Department for 1931 over 1930, “a decided decrease in permanent partial disabilities, but a large increase in temporary disability cases, and a slight increase in total awards.”

   The proposed solutions to decreasing accidents and fatalities and increasing “safety engineering” was to be directed by a responsible officer or employee, who supervised and coordinated work, and who was responsible for results to the District Engineer.  Safety matters were to be handled by the Safety Section through the Area Chiefs or Division heads, who in turn worked through their subordinates. All officers and employees were charged with advising the Safety Section of any hazards or unsafe practices which may have come to their attention.  Clay stressed that under the duties of Safety Section officers or employees were responsible for the successful conduct of all safety work in the district. He wrote that “the impetus must come from it.  It should be charged, he wrote, that there should be “stimulating interest among and supervising the education of all employees, supervising the preparation and collection of accident reports, compiling and analyzing safety data, detection of hazards and unsafe practices and determination of methods to correct them.”    

   Lucius Clay graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1918 and held various civil and military engineering posts during the 1920s and 1930s, including teaching at West Point, and directing the construction of dams and civilian airports.  By 1942 he rose to the position of the youngest brigadier general in the Army.  He acquired a reputation for bringing order and operational efficiency out of chaos, and for being an exceptionally hard and disciplined worker, going long hours and refusing to even stop to eat during his workdays.  Clay did not see actual combat but was awarded the Legion of Merit in 1942, the Distinguished Service Medal in 1944, and received the Bronze Star for his action in stabilizing the French harbor of Cherbourg that was critical to the flow of war material. In 1945 he served as deputy to General Dwight Eisenhower. The following year, he was made Deputy Governor of Germany during the Allied Military Government.  Lucius D. Clay Kaserne, a U.S. Army installation located within Wiesbaden-Erbenheim, Germany is named for him.  It’s the headquarters of the U.S. Army Europe (USAREUR).