Home / General / This Day in Labor History: April 28, 1971

This Day in Labor History: April 28, 1971


On April 28, 1971, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened its doors. The creation of OSHA proved to be one the greatest victory in American history for workplace health. Unfortunately, OSHA could never live up to its potential to revolutionize the workplace due to the organized resistance of corporations, the conservative movement that would transform American politics beginning in the late 1970s, and regulatory capture that limited the agency’s effectiveness. That said, OSHA has done a tremendous amount to improve workers’ lives.

Unsafe and unhealthy working conditions had long plagued American workers. The Gilded Age theory of workplace risk, encapsulated in the 1842 Massachusetts Supreme Court decision Farwell v. The Boston and Worcester Rail Road Corporation, placed workplace responsibility onto workers rather than employers, saying they assumed the risk when they agreed to work. By the 1890s, this had begun to break down after workers successfully sued corporations for injury and death. Employer supported worker compensation plans began passing at the state level in the 1910s, allowing corporations to avoid lawsuits and rationalize losses for workplace injuries, while also giving quite little to workers. Industrial reformers like Alice Hamilton continued drawing connections between worker health and exposure on the job, leading to very slow reforms. By the Great Society, keeping workers safe became increasingly important to policy makers. Workers were increasingly unsatisfied with the exposures they faced on the job, the rising environmental movement provided an ecological language to workplace environments, and liberals within the Johnson Administration sought to center broader quality of life issues to the Democratic Party. Even when Vietnam blew up LBJ’s career, the momentum for a federal workplace safety program, like much else of the Great Society, carried over into the Nixon Administration.

On December 29, 1970, Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act, creating an agency to oversee workplace safety and health that would begin operation on April 28, 1971. The act also created the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) as a part of OSHA to spearhead research programs on these issues.

Organized labor by and large supported OSHA’s creation, but only a few unions really took advantage of the agency to bring workplace safety and health to the front of union politics. The AFL-CIO pushed for full implementation of the act as one of many legislative goals, but did not seek to empower workers on the shop floor by fighting for safer workplaces. A few individual unions however did do this–the International Association of Machinists, the International Woodworkers of America, and most famously the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers. These were also the most reformist oriented unions in the AFL-CIO during the 1970s, seeking to channel the broader disgruntlement of the working-class away from racial politics and toward something useful. They were also the unions who often chafed against the conservative leadership of George Meany and the culture of staid bureaucracy that dominated many unions during these years. The labor leader most associated with OSHA and workplace health is Tony Mazzocchi of the OCAW. Sometimes called “The Rachel Carson of the American Workplace,” Mazzocchi had pressed through the 1960s for vigorous workplace safety programs in union contracts, empowered union members to become activists on the shop floor for workplace health, and built bridges between the labor and environmental movements to make the workplace environment an important agenda item for both. After OSHA’s founding, Mazzocchi became the national leader in pressing the agency to issue stronger asbestos standards to protect both workers and consumers.

The turning point in OSHA history was the election of Ronald Reagan. Reagan gutted the OSHA budget in 1982. Reagan’s OSHA director, Thorne Auchter, a Florida real estate developer, signaled a switch in OSHA policies when he reversed a regulation that allowed construction workers to view their own medical records for information on toxic exposure. You can read more about the Auchter years here,.

Given the time that an agency needs to establish itself, create programs, and conduct research, in many ways OSHA was just reaching its stride when Reagan slashed the budgets. For the International Woodworkers of America, the decline in OSHA funding was devastating. The IWA was a bit slower than OCAW in engaging OSHA seriously. The election of a new generation of union leadership in 1976 catapulted the union into one of most aggressive for using OSHA as a tool to empower workers on the shop floor. The IWA trained workers in OSHA policies, then sent them back to the shop floor to demand problems be cleaned up. It even suggested to OSHA that the agency send a staffer to work directly with the IWA, which was denied because it was outside the purview of the agency, but also got the attention of the agency as a union serious about workplace health. Basil Whiting, Deputy Assistant Secretary of OSHA, told the IWA Convention in 1977, “You have been one of the few unions in the United States that has grasped the nettle here, has begun to move forward in terms of developing your own internal capacity to take action in relation to the serious problems of health and safety that are killing off your members.”

The Reagan budgets, combined with the decline in timber employment due to outside factors and thus a smaller membership, put a stop to these workplace safety programs. NIOSH grants to fund the effects of ash from the Mt. St. Helens explosion were ended, as was a federal grant to the University of Washington to study chemical exposure among plywood mill workers. Other plans to develop compensation programs for physical aliments suffered by loggers were shelved entirely.

Despite Reagan’s defunding of OSHA programs, overall workplace safety has improved significantly in the United States since 1971. A good bit of this has to do with industry outsourcing industrial risk to Latin America and Asia, but there have also been real changes in workplace culture. In 1970, there were 18 workplace fatalities for every 100,000 workers. By 2006, that fell to 4.1 deaths per 100,000 workers. Occupational injury and illness rates fell by 40% over the same years.

As we have seen in recent weeks, OSHA’s ability to protect workers has severe limitations due to underfunding. In 1980, OSHA employed 2950 people. In 2006, it employed only 2092 people, despite the near doubling of the size of the workforce. The explosion at the West Fertilizer plant in Texas on April 17 that killed at least 14 people demonstrated the agency’s very real limitations. There are so few OSHA inspectors that it would take 129 years to inspect every workplace in the country at current staffing levels. Punishment for OSHA violations are often weak and employers have minimum fear that of any real punishment.

This is the 57th post in this series. The rest are archived here.

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  • José Arcadio Buendía

    Plus, like, according to that post the other day don’t things like OSHA and the FLSA kill people in Latin America or something?

    • cpinva

      “Plus, like, according to that post the other day don’t things like OSHA and the FLSA kill people in Latin America or something?”

      no, that would be the corps. transferring their crappy workplace safety record, along with jobs, down there. but then, you knew that already, and just decided to be a twit. bad job of it, come back when you’ve upped your game.

      • Mors

        Et in Arcadio ego, and have a nice day!

  • shah8

    The more aggressive exported ills are examples like cigarette companies expanding in third world countries, the sale of asbestos and MBTA to third world countries, etc, and these are things US governance are empowered to ban effectively, rather than the initial overly paternal scheme in response to the building collapse.

    Of course, ending the drug war would rather radically improve worker safety to.

    With respect to worker deaths here–I don’t think this much got pushed out so much as gotten expired through the decline of the most lethal primary extraction industries. We don’t mine as much as we used to, fish, or log. Most value-added manufacturing (or refining) are highly intensive in automation these days compared to what it used to be like. Put simply, there are fewer chances for rapacious capitalists (or risk insensitive sole proprietor) to spend lives, due to played out extraction schemes. We’ve also have reduced the chances for accidents and made accidents more serious to the bottom line (motivating bean counter safety of the equipment, leading to safer workers) in industry. So as above, what we’re really shipping out is pollution, mostly, rather than unsafe workplaces.

    • Bruce Vail

      re: motivating bean counter safety

      This is an interesting point. I recall vividly a presentation I witnessed in the early ’90s where a top exec of CSX, the railroad corp., talked about their program to decrease worker accidents. The program was framed entirely as a question of cutting costs and raising stock prices. The human impact of worker accidents, including deaths, was completely absent from the conversation.

    • cpinva

      “So as above, what we’re really shipping out is pollution, mostly, rather than unsafe workplaces.”

      clearly, you have little actual first-hand knowledge of industry in the US today. i have had occasion to audit many a small, medium & large manufacturing company, some of which are publicly held. the concern for worker safety is directly linearly related to economic conditions. the worse the economy, the less likely safety issues will be adequately addressed, because doing so costs money. while it’s true that many companies have done significant automation on their lines, some things are difficult, if not currently impossible to automate, requiring an actual human to do it. if there’s a human involved, safety becomes an issue.

      • shah8

        I had to read that a few times. I don’t think I made the error you seem to think I’m making. As in, of course less funds are allocated to worker safety as the manufacturer bottom line declines. Moreover, you’re not really addressing anything I’ve said, instead preferring to proclaim my ignorance. I suggest you reread what I said, just to be sure you find out what I believe factory owners actually care about.

    • DrDick

      So as above, what we’re really shipping out is pollution, mostly, rather than unsafe workplaces.

      Have you ever visited the planet earth? A simple Google search on working conditions in those overseas factories says unsafe workplaces is exactly what we are exporting.

      • shah8

        Why did you even bother to make a reply when all you have is an assertion? I didn’t come to my opinion because I read one AP news article or something, and I didn’t come by this awareness lightly. Perhaps I shall retort in turn, do yourself a favor and google about asbestos in India and China, and who supplies it, and what the likely future costs in lives and wellbeing this entails.

        • DrDick

          Coming from someone who has made nothing but unfounded assertions here, that is rather rich. Mine, however, are based on actually reading in depth about conditions in those overseas (or cross border in Mexico) factories, as I actually teach about this and the ongoing impacts of neocolonialism. Do try to pull your head out occasionally.

          • shah8

            Well, now you’ve claimed the status of authority. Even so, why should I take your assertion seriously? Especially given your preference for ridicule? Besides, you wouldn’t be the first authority I’ve had a throwdown with, and you wouldn’t be the last. Know why? Because I win.

            Now, then, put up and contribute to the conversation like a gentleman who thinks others deserve respect, or…shut up.

            In furtherance to the idea of a productive conversation, I might remind you that first of all, I did not say the West didn’t export unsafe labor conditions in factories. Obviously, as in the classic case of the maquiladora systems, we did. However, of the maquiladoras, Foxconn, and the history between? They’re among both the least, and most overtly evil things we do in our neocolonialism. Nobody, of course, forgets Bhopal. The damned near permanent conflict in the Congo is an acceptable result for low cost critical manufacturing elements like cobalt. And deaths are about what, three times the magnitude of the worst casualty estimate @ Bhopal, let’s drop in all the people that die in mines in eastern Congo, too. If we don’t really talk about how many Iraqis died because we wanted control of the oil under their sands, then those Congo folks don’t stand a chance. Same with all of the victims of Chiquita. And hey, tobacco and asbestos use contribute to the health problems of people in the workplace, too! But broadly speaking, factories that directly supply western firms are just so much less nastier than jobs that produces things or services natively that I think this should be acknowledged. Chinese mining, for example, is incredibly lethal in a number of different ways–to workers and to the people that leave near the mines or near where it’s processed. Much of that stuff is domestic consumption or to other third world countries.

            Exported pollution hurts and kills more people. Cultivated political instability hurts and kills more people. What’s a Haitian more afraid of? That textile job? Or the lack of an effective and humane central state that the US so assiduously maintains? You know, so that cholera runs rampant and every little rainstorm drowns hundreds at a time… How about all dem Duracell batteries we use for the flashlight that we can get cheeeeaaaaap from China? You know how toxic the process of battery-making is, right? Lotsa cancer deaths over there and not here.

            • DrDick

              Keep fucking that chicken, bubba. The pollution is part of the unsafe workplaces. That there are other problems as well, does not trivialize the harm we do to workers in the third world. The well documented fact that you do not give a shit about workers (or anybody not you) does not mean that is all right.

              • shah8

                Why are you this personal and vicious?

  • Bruce Vail

    Penn. AFL-CIO had this, which provides valuable perspective, and an emphasis of what remains to be done:

    “The U.S. Labor Department reports that since the establishment of OSHA over 40 years ago, significant progress has been made in reducing job-related injuries and deaths. In 1970, the year that OSHA was established, there were 14,000 deaths on the job in the United States. In 2011 that number was 4,609 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or about 12 on the job deaths per day in the United States of America.”

    Twelve deaths a day is a lot, especially when you read the scattered news reports of on-the-job fatalities and realize that most of them are avoidable…..

    • Mr Black

      Yes, especially the horrifying ones, like dying in a manure pit:

      UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In the wake of several manure-pit fatalities on mid-Atlantic farms in recent years, researchers in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences have published a new, international standard to vent confined animal-manure storage facilities used at large livestock operations.

      Manure storage poses a significant hazard to agricultural workers due primarily to the danger of toxic gas buildup. Exact statistics are difficult to determine, but researchers estimate that about 10 people die each year in North American animal-manure pits.

      And such fatalities usually involve several people, and they’re usually family members, as in this case:

      A Pennsylvania Mennonite dairy farmer and two of his sons were found dead in a deep manure pit in Kent County Thursday morning in an apparent farm accident that remains under investigation by Maryland State Police.

      The three from Lancaster County worked at the farm in Kennedyville every day, state police said. They pumped liquid manure from a 20-foot deep and sloping pit through large augers to ready the fertilizer for use on fields.

      Glen W. Nolt, 48, Kelvin R. Nolt, 18, and Cleason S. Nolt, 14, of Peach Bottom in Lancaster County were last seen by other farm workers at about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, state police said.

      We’ve had several cases like this in California, instead of Amish farmers they usually involve Hispanic workers/family working on someone else’s farm.

      • Bruce Vail


        This story is even more horrifying when you recall that every time DOL moves to tighten regulation on child farm workers we get a lot of predictable wailing about how the horrible bureaucrats are trying to kill off the family farm….

        • Hell, we’ve seen people complaining about that when I’ve talked about the dangers of grain elevators in the comments in this blog.

  • Mart

    Don’t forget about workman’s compensation insurance. There are huge premium savings when you go from worst in class to best. This pays for a lot of workplace safety, and drives workplace safety at large companies.

    FYI – I have toured likely over 300 grain elevators the past thirty-three years. The difference in dust housekeeping pre-OSHA grain standard to post has been tremendous. Used to have to pour the dust out of my boots at the end of a tour. Now rarely find any significant accumulation. Lot fewer dust explosions/deaths post OSHA dust standard as well.

    After the Dixie Crystal Sugar explosion killed 14, Congress was determined to tighten OSHA dust standards. Of course they have done nothing. In the meantime OSHA has initiated a national dust emphasis program that uses any natioanally recognized dust standard in addition to the relatively weak OSHA standard. If they happen to make it to a site, OSHA can be very tough. One location I tour spent well over $1M in dust protection upgrades after OSHA visited.

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