A must-read story on the problems with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, focusing on glue poisoning in a North Carolina furniture factory. The article describes OSHA as “the watchdog agency that many Americans love to hate and industry often faults as overzealous.” I’m not really sure about the former part of that formulation, but the latter is certainly true. And therein lies the problem with OSHA. When it was founded, it had real potential to regulate the workplace environment. Organized labor took advantage of OSHA’s existence to empower workers on the shopfloor, pushing for new regulations, testing of air quality, right-to-know laws on chemicals, and all sorts of things. One chapter of my book is about how the International Woodworkers of America became one of the nation’s most proactive unions when it came to OSHA.
But the election of Reagan in 1981 effectively ended OSHA’s potential to reshape the workplace. Suffering from industry complaints, reduced funding, and regulatory capture, OSHA just does not have the ability to enforce all these regulations. Too few inspectors, too little money, too much industry pressure.
And let’s be clear–industry has been completely fine with their workers getting sick and dying all the way to the 19th century. From the days of Alice Hamilton and the first health reformers around 1900 going until 2013, industries have denied their culpability in workplace illness, blamed workers for their own sickness, influenced politicians to not fix problems, and eventually moved the factories to China in order to continue profiting off of workers’ destroyed bodies. Sometimes, workers suing companies could force some change–corporate support of workers’ compensation legislation in the 1910s happened because successful lawsuits worried industrial leaders. So this is not an issue just of the present–it’s an issue of poorly regulated capitalism. Looking over this history, it’s kind of amazing that OSHA was created in the first place, but the political will simply hasn’t existed over the decades to force industry to make workplace health a priority. We can’t even imagining creating laws that would force American companies to have safety standards in factories abroad that would comply with American laws–but there’s no reason we shouldn’t fight for this.