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OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, has been with us since 1971, after President Richard Nixon signed the Williams-Steiger Occupational Safety and Health Act on December 29, 1970. Now over 40 years old, many younger workers think it has been with us forever, but if they had been working before OSHA was created, they would not be enjoying the safe working conditions American workers enjoy today.
After the Civil War, industrial productivity in the United States went into high gear. Factories sprang up across America, producing ever more sophisticated products for a hungry populace. Working conditions were not good, though, as competing companies overlooked safety in favor of increased productivity.
In 1877, Massachusetts enacted the nation’s first industrial safety law, requiring basic safety measures such as providing guards on equipment, elevator protection and adequate fire escapes. Other states followed suit and by 1890, 21 states had at least some safety hazard laws on their books.
In 1910, journalist William B. Hard wrote an article about injuries and deaths in American steel mills. His expose, Making Steel and Killing Men, shocked the nation with the revelation that out of every 10,000 steel workers, 1,200 were either killed or injured. His article helped force the industry to improve its safety measures.
In 1933, President Delano Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor. Perkins created the Bureau of Labor Standards in 1934. The first Federal government agency specifically designed to promote workplace safety nationwide.
By the 1960s, technology had introduced more efficiency to industry, but new dangers to workers came with it. Specifically, cancer causing chemicals were found in in workplaces across the nation. A Public Health Service report, Protecting the Health of Eighty Million Americans, recommended changes in the workplace. The AFL-CIO brought the report to President Lyndon Johnson’s attention and urged him to take action. In 1968, President Johnson stated that it was “the shame of a modern industrial nation” that over 14,000 workers were killed and 2.2 million injured on the job every year.
OSHA was the end result of President Johnson’s proposal to make it the responsibility of the Secretary of Labor to set and enforce standards to protect American workers. Of course, things didn’t improve as soon as the ink dried on the Williams-Steiger Occupational Safety and Health Act. One of OSHA’s first orders of business was to recruit and train its compliance officer staff and set up regional offices. Then they set up the first OSHA Training Institute (OTI) at the end of a runway at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.
The history of OSHA is an illustrious one. Employment has doubled from 56 million workers in 1971 to over 115 million since its inception, yet workplace fatalities have fallen by 62% and workplace illnesses and injuries have dropped by 40%. OSHA continues to strive to improve workplace safety and with our help, they can.