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A short history of OSHA

The Occupational Safety and Health Act, which created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, was signed into law on December 29, 1970 by then-President Richard Milhous Nixon. The act was a culmination of a century of studies and reports on U.S. safety records and "gave the Federal Government the authority to set and enforce safety and health standards for most of the country's workers."

As in many federally mandated acts, the road to OSHA was paved through states' actions and activism. Mine workers in West Virginia, factory workers in Massachusetts and steel mill workers in Chicago were among the earliest recorded case histories revealing inadequate health and safety working conditions.

The precursors to workers' welfare programs like OSHA were worker's compensation insurance programs, which were first standardized in Germany under the statesman Otto von Bismarck in 1884. While U.S. programs offered monetary compensation to workers injured in the workplace, they lacked the preventive measures to improve safety and health conditions. Insurance premiums were relatively low which made federally-mandated rules for improving workplace conditions less urgent.

Another precursor to OSHA was the Bureau of Labor (later the Bureau of Labor Statistics), established in 1884 to collect data on workers and working conditions throughout the U.S., followed by the Working Conditions Service during World War I.

In 1933 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins, the first woman cabinet member, to head the Department of Labor. In 1934 Perkins created the Bureau of Labor Standards to standardize working conditions along health and safety lines.

Between the 1930s and the 1960s, the Department of Labor grew into a hodgepodge of safety programs and laws. With support from labor, researchers and consumer advocates (like Ralph Nader), President Lyndon Baines Johnson introduced a far-reaching and comprehensive health and safety bill to Congress in 1968, only to be stymied by the Department of Commerce which refused to give Labor such broad and far-reaching powers.

In the end, Congress compromised over enforcement of health and safety standards, naming a commission separate from Labor.

During the 1970s the OSHA Training Institute (OTI) was established, several states instituted their own OSH programs, and new standards were developed as new workplace hazards were considered and investigated. These included the use of and exposure to pesticides, asbestos and cancer-causing chemicals like arsenic.

According to the department itself, during the 1980s, "OSHA's goal was to provide a balance of enforcement, education and training, standard setting, and consultation activities. As a result of the agency's focus on compliance and cooperation, the 1980s became a decade of more efficient standards, improved technology, and expansion of educational and cooperative activities."

During the Regan administration, OSHA lost 25 percent of its operating budget. In the subsequent Bush administration, though, Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole responded to criticism by asking congress for budget increases and calling for dramatically stiffer fines and penalties.

After passage of the Omnibus Reconciliation Act of 1990, penalties for owners and contractors increased dramatically. OSHA says, "The Act increased the maximum penalty for violations seven-fold and imposed a minimum proposed penalty of $5,000 for willful violations. The maximum allowable civil penalty became $70,000 for each willful or repeated violation; $7,000 for each serious or other-than-serious violation as well as $7,000 for each violation of the posting requirements and $7,000 for each day beyond a stated abatement date for failure to correct a violation."

Unsurprisingly, there was pushback from the confrontational tactics of OSHA inspectors, and a "reinvention" of its field practices included a "cooperative partnership" with offenders to allow for good-faith efforts on the part of employers to make amends.

A ten-year fight to introduce ergonomic related injuries to OSHA was passed under Clinton but undone by President George W. Bush in 2001.

Since then, the presence of OSHA has been felt in many of the large national disasters of the first decade of the 21st century. These included cleanup after the World Trade Center disaster following terrorist attacks in 2001, the anthrax incidents involving the U.S. Postal Service in 2001, the BP Texas City fire/explosion (2005), Hurricane Katrina (2005), the Minnesota bridge collapse of 2007, the Imperial sugar refinery explosion in 2008, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

 
 
 
OSHA Safety Signs & Symbols
President Richard Nixon signing OSHA into law — another one of his enduring accomplishments, next to founding the EPA and making peace in Vietnam.
 
 
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