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OSHA at Forty

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On July 28, Alex Pacas, 19, and Wyatt Whitebread, 14, of Mount Carroll, IL were suffocated to death, sinking into several thousand tons of quicksand-like shelled corn in the grain bin where they were working. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) quickly determined that their deaths were preventable if Haasbach, LLC, the grain elevator's owner, had followed proper safety regulations.

Such tragedies are more common than you might think. Every day, an average of 14 American workers die in work-related accidents, many of which are preventable. In addition, every year 3.3 million American workers are injured or sickened by their work conditions. As shocking as this is, these figures represent a dramatic improvement when compared to the situation before the federal Occupational Safety and Health act (OSH) was passed 40 years ago this week.

The OSH Act, signed into law by President Richard Nixon in the waning days of 1970, is a real success story. In the past four decades, the number of deaths due to workplace accidents fell from 13,800 in 1970 to 5,657 in 2007. The total incidence rate of private sector occupational injuries and illnesses plummeted from 10.9 per 100 workers in 1972 to 3.9 in 2008. The decline of blue-collar industrial jobs has certainly contributed to the falling numbers of workplace fatalities and diseases, but much of the progress is due to the tougher government standards made possible by OSHA which is now celebrating its fortieth anniversary.

This improvement was accomplished despite 40 years of attacks on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration by conservative critics and business leaders who demonize it as a harmful infringement on American free enterprise. Business lobby groups, corporate-sponsored academics, and business-side politicians use every conceivable argument in their rhetorical armament. Most vociferously, the corporate lobbyists insisted that OSHA would hurt the ability of business to operate efficiently, destroy firms, and kill jobs. A few years after the law was passed, a Chamber of Commerce pamphlet declared "This is the sorry history of OSHA - a statute which serves little useful purpose; and in its administration is even threatening the entire business system."

This year, Congressional Republicans and their industry allies carried on this ignoble tradition, successfully blocking the first significant reform of the OSH Act since its passage. The Protecting America's Workers Act and Robert Byrd Mine Safety Act would have given OSHA the tools to crack down on repeat violators and prevent many more accidents. In recent hearings over the proposed law, Jonathan Snare, representing the Coalition of Workplace Safety, a corporate front group, argued that any tightening of regulatory oversight would "create greater cost, litigation and hamper job creation." Snare continued that, "Especially during these challenging economic conditions, the adverse impact on the ability of employers to create jobs is a critical factor and should be of concern to this Committee and Congress." Snare's comment is yet another example of how corporate America cries wolf whenever reformers attempt to make business more socially responsible. Time and again, their doomsday predictions have proven false.

OSHA has been particularly effective when regulating some of our most dangerous industries, which hasn't stopped the affected employers from vigorously challenging the agency at every turn. Following a series of explosions in grain elevators in December 1977, which caused the deaths of 59 workers, OSHA began the process of developing a grain handling facilities standard that took a decade to put into effect. At the time industry was bitterly opposed. Yet, the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA), a persistent critic of OSHA, acknowledged in 1998 that the industry had seen "an unprecedented decline in explosions, injuries and fatalities at grain handling facilities." In 2006, a review by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board reported a 42 percent decline in grain explosions, 60 percent decline in injuries, and a 70 percent decline in fatal accidents. (There are still recalcitrant employers who do not follow OSHA's guidelines, leading to tragedies like the deaths of Pacas and Whitebread.) Similarly, the passage of the Cotton Dust standard in 1978 lowered rates of "brown lung" among textile workers throughout the country from approximately 12 percent to about 1 percent of all employees.

Despite these successes, business lobby groups and their allies in Congress have hamstrung OSHA's effectiveness by thwarting tougher standards, restricting its budget, and limiting the number of inspectors. Today, state and federal OSHA agencies combined only have 2, 218 inspectors, and in every state the number of OSHA inspectors fails to meet the benchmark set by the International Labour Organization for the appropriate ratio of safety inspectors to employees.

This year's headline catching accidents at Upper Big Branch and Deepwater Horizon, and many of the less known tragedies like the deaths of two teenagers in Mount Carroll, were avoidable with stronger laws and more vigorous enforcement. Industry groups have used their significant resources to escape their responsibilities. Now, the US Chamber of Commerce and congressional Republicans are stepping up their attacks on OSHA, recycling many of the same arguments they used 40 years ago. While they claim stronger workplace protections are "job killers," the unfortunate reality is that it is American workers who are dying every day.

OSHA's 40th anniversary is both a milestone to celebrate and a call to action. The newly elected House of Representatives is threatening to defund OSHA and make workplaces more dangerous. Eric Cantor, the new House Majority Leader, has threatened to look closely at any proposed regulation that imposes "additional unnecessary costs on employers and job creators," an allusion to a coming assault on OSHA and other federal regulatory agencies. This is a frightening scenario because America needs effective protections to ensure that our citizens come home from work every night safe and healthy.

David Rosner, a member of the National Academy's Institute of Medicine, is Ronald H. Lauterstein Professor of Sociomedical Sciences and History at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. Gerald Markowitz is Distinguished Professor of History at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and City University of New York Graduate Center. Together they have authored eight books on the history of public health, occupational health and environmental health.