By Ellis Brasch
Oregon's Governor's Occupational Safety and Health Conference, better known as Oregon GOSH, had its origins in Salem over two autumn days in 1944: Sept. 25 and 26 to be precise. The venue was the Marion Hotel, except for "the final group meeting" at the State Capitol. To ensure that the focus remained strictly on safety – "health" had not yet crept into the lexicon – conference organizers made sure that customary conference frills were entirely eliminated. There would be no evening banquet. Seventy-nine people attended the "First Annual Oregon Industrial Safety Conference," including Oregon's 23rd governor, Earl Snell.
Without knowing it, Snell set the precedent for a unique brand of workplace safety conference with the distinguished provenance of the Governor's Office. They would become known as governor's conferences, but not for another five years.
The following year, 116 people registered and 120 people attended the Second Annual Oregon Industrial Safety Conference in December, "designed as a practical, down-to-earth group approach to industrial accident prevention." The down-to-earth nature of the event was highlighted by "safety quizmasters" who interrupt the discussions with 15-minute examinations, which "threaten to take the interest away from the major subjects of the session."
Oregon Industrial Safety Conferences drew more attendees each year, but a governor was absent until 1947 when Gov. John Hubert Hall spoke to 228 folks who attended the fourth annual conference at the American Legion Hall in Salem.
In 1949, Gov. James Douglas McKay officially made the Oregon Industrial Safety Conference the Governor's Industrial Safety Conference. The venue was the Masonic Temple in Portland, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. The publication, Safer Oregon, noted: "The sponsorship of this conference by Oregon's Governor Douglas McKay … marks the beginning of an active participation in the work of Industrial Accident Prevention by a top administrative official." Seven hundred people registered for the free conference and 572 people attended – the largest turnout ever for an Oregon safety conference.
As a result of the 1949 conference, McKay established Oregon's first Industrial Safety Advisory Committee, which brought together business and labor leaders to address workplace safety issues statewide.
McKay presided over the next three conferences. The big issue at the 1950 conference was rearmament – the U.S. effort to build up West Germany after World War II; as a result, "industrial accident trends… after a long period of gradual decline" were increasing. McKay also recommended establishing smaller regional safety conferences across the state.
More than 900 people attended the 1951 conference; McKay addressed the opening session and urged the participants to think of safety as a cooperative community project.
McKay also delivered the keynote address at the fourth annual Governor's Conference in 1952; however, newcomer Tom Lawston McCall – former assistant to McKay and political commentator on KGW – was master of ceremonies during the Thursday-evening banquet.
The fifth Governor's Conference received national attention in 1953 when at least 12 states announced that delegates were coming. Oregon's 26th governor, Paul L. Patterson, addressed the opening assembly, but "Mrs. George H. Buckler, a housewife," stole the show with a follow-up speech: "Safety is a man's subject." She reminded listeners that, "Aside from a few luminous career women, the majority of women are entirely dependent for their future upon one person, the husband."
The sixth annual Governor's Conference drew a record 1,125 attendees in 1954. In fact, the Masonic Temple couldn't hold everyone and it was necessary to secure more conference rooms in the nearby First Congregational Church and the art museum. Gov. Patterson attended and credited industry, labor, and state-government officials for their accident prevention work. Pioneering safety engineer Dorothy Shane (also a nurse) at C.D. Johnson Lumber Corporation gave a talk to the Sawmilling Section on "What's behind the scenes in a successful safety program."
The Governor's Conference took the year off in 1955; it was the first year since 1944 that a statewide conference had not been held. Instead, plans were made to hold 26 regional conferences over the next three years. The new plan called for the Governor's Conference to be held in alternate years, along with the regional safety conferences.
Oregon's 28th governor, Robert D. Holmes, gave the opening address at the seventh Governor's Conference on May 16, 1957, at Portland's Multnomah Hotel, declaring, "We must double and triple our efforts to educate the public in safety as industry has been educated. There is no way we can legislate common sense or prudence." Coincidentally, S. M. Purdy, s u p e r v i s o r of safety and training at Portland Gas & Coke Company, had just finished a lecture on natural gas, the "magic fuel." He had also planned a safe-use demonstration of the gas, but abandoned the idea "due to potential fire hazards."
Gov. Mark O. Hatfield was the featured speaker at the 1959 Governor's Conference in April at the Masonic Temple, where he gathered with guests at the evening safety banquet to listen to The Trebles, "an attractive all-girl quartet" from Pacific University who sang four songs.
The ninth Governor's Conference happened the following year – 1960 – at a new venue: the Marion Motor Hotel in Salem. "Education in accident prevention" was the theme and Hatfield delivered the opening address, noting "Oregon has one of the finest safety programs in the nation."
The next three Governor's Conferences returned to the alternate-years format: 1962, 1964, and 1966. Hatfield gave the opening address at the 1962 Conference, telling attendees that the goal of Oregon's safety program is to accomplish its mission "in a friendly and fair manner using the consultative approach, expanded educational activities, special industry programs, and ... better public relations." At the 1966 gathering – Governor's Conference No. 12 – the theme was "Reaching for maximum industrial safety" and there was a good reason for Hatfield to feel pleased about the event. He could tell conference-goers that the "fatality figure" was 92 in 1965, an all-time low, and the "injury frequency" per million hours worked had dropped from 45 in 1960 to 36.
The 13th Governor's Conference would not take place until February 1969 at Salem's Marion Motor Hotel. Gov. Tom McCall, who had been in office for nearly three years, delivered the opening address on Friday, reflecting on the conference theme, "Safer days through changing ways."
Nine years later, Gov. Bob Straub opened the 1978 Governor's Conference at the Hilton Hotel in Portland. But there was some tension in the air from the union picket line that was blocking the entrance. Straub refused to cross the line, but eventually made it to the speaker's podium in the auditorium. Nine more years would pass before another governor – Neil Goldschmidt – attended a Governor's Conference. Goldschmidt and Portland mayor Bud Clark spoke at the Conference's popular Hoot Owl Breakfast at the Lloyd Center Red Lion Hotel in 1987.
Twenty-two years later, Ted Kulongoski – the last governor to attend the Governor's Conference – spoke at GOSH 2009 at the Oregon Convention Center. "As we look forward to the future," he said, "we face new challenges to join the old. Sustainability, nanotechnology, new manufacturing techniques, and changes in the composition of the workforce will demand creativity and genuine commitment to workplace health and safety."
Special thanks to Claire Bolyard, Oregon State Library research librarian, and Oregon OSHA conference coordinator, Sharell Lien, for help with the background research.
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