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Eula Bingham, RIP


A couple of weeks ago, the great Eula Bingham died.

OSHA is a mess today. It gets no respect from employers. It is seen as an agency that messes with small details, misses the big point, and is totally ineffective. It is vastly underfunded and that only gets worse with every Republican administration. As of 2012, it had enough inspectors to inspect every workplace in America once every 129 years. It’s actually gotten worse since then. Corporations have completely captured it.

It didn’t have to be that way. For a very brief time, it wasn’t. And that is when Eula Bingham headed it in the Carter years. The regulatory agencies created during the Johnson and Nixon years needed some years to really get up and running. That included OSHA, which was poorly run in its early years. Bingham took over and nearly revolutionized it, getting it to focus on the big picture and working hard to make workers’ lives safer.

In an effort to pursue what President Carter called “common sense priorities,” Dr. Bingham eliminated more than 1,000 regulations that she considered “nit-picking” and that industry regarded as a nuisance. This freed the agency’s inspectors to focus on serious threats — to go after whales, not minnows, in the parlance of the day.

“She put OSHA on the map,” Dr. Philip Landrigan, a friend who worked with her in government starting in 1979, said in an interview. “She was a strong-willed woman who understood the levers of government.”

In her campaign for workplace safety Dr. Bingham clashed with business, Congress and even fellow members of the Carter administration, though she usually had the backing of the president. Perhaps her hardest-fought battle was over cotton dust, which threatened the health of Southern textile workers, many of them poor, black and nonunion.

Dr. Bingham wanted to lower the acceptable levels of cotton dust, but mill owners opposed her.

“There was a pitched battle fought in the Oval Office in front of Jimmy Carter,” Dr. Landrigan said. Dr. Bingham and Ray Marshall, the labor secretary, pushed for the new standard while Mr. Carter’s economic advisers argued against it, saying it would hurt business.

Finally, Dr. Landrigan said, President Carter walked over, grinned, put his arm around Dr. Bingham and said, “I am with Eula on this one.”

As a Washington bureaucrat, Dr. Bingham achieved a rare level of notoriety. In 1979, she appeared in The Washington Star’s crossword puzzle. “OSHA Lady” read the clue for 39 Across, seeking a four-letter answer.

Let me quote from Out of Sight on the difference between Bingham’s OSHA and what came later.

Because Nixon never wanted to create OSHA, it was not until 1977 that the agency had full backing from the president. Jimmy Carter’s OSHA’s head Eula Bingham brought energy to the agency and looked to develop new health standards for a variety of chemicals. But with strong corporate resistance, many of Bingham’s efforts were frustrated. Then, in 1981, Ronald Reagan became president and never again would OSHA provide a real threat to business. Reagan named Thorne Auchter, a Florida construction contractor, as OSHA director. Auchter opposed OSHA’s existence and sought to undermine it through reducing regulations and making it more “business-friendly.” Reagan and Auchter gutted the OSHA budget in 1982 and reversed a regulation that allowed construction workers to view their own medical records for information on their toxic exposure. OSHA funding stagnated after this. In 1980, OSHA employed 2950 inspectors. In 2006, that dropped to 2092, despite the near doubling of the size of the workforce. There is around 2200 inspectors today, one for every 59,000 workers. In 1977, Jimmy Carter budgeted $101 million for OSHA. In 2012, Barack Obama’s proposed budget asked for $95 million.[1] The explosion at the West Fertilizer plant in Texas on April 17, 2013 that killed fifteen 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. In 2006, the average OSHA fine for solid waste violations was $840, an amount that will deter no polluter.[2]

[1] David Weil, The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done to Improve It (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 216.

[2] Daniel Faber, Capitalizing on Environmental Justice: The Polluter-Industrial Complex in the Age of Globalization (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), 36.

Perhaps surprisingly, or perhaps not, probably the two biggest heroes of workplace safety in America are women–Bingham and Alice Hamilton, the Progressive Era reformer.

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