The U.S. Department of Labor first came into my life in 1979, when I was 15. That was when I got my first job. I was an usher at a cinema in my hometown of Boca Raton, Fla. It was a great gig; I got paid and got to see movies for free! But I also learned about the world of work, which has played a major role in my life ever since.
In the decade leading up to that first employment experience, my future employer — the U.S. Department of Labor — was working hard to ensure that my workplace, and all American workplaces, were safe and fair. Most notably, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, signed by President Nixon in 1970, created our Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA enforces standards that impact nearly every employee in the nation.
The labor secretary at the time was James D. Hodgson, who also expanded employment and training programs under the Emergency Employment Act of 1971 in order to aid Vietnam-era veterans. When he resigned in 1973, his replacement was former union leader Peter J. Brennan. Among Brennan’s achievements was the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (known as ERISA), signed by President Ford in 1974.
The act established — for the first time — minimum standards for retirement, health and other welfare benefits. Today, ERISA is enforced by the department’s Employee Benefits Security Administration.
When Brennan stepped down in 1975, Ford tapped seasoned presidential adviser John Dunlop. While Dunlop’s tenure was also short − he resigned the next year in protest of an executive branch decision to limit union demonstrations − it saw the creation of our Employment and Training Administration, a replacement for the Manpower Administration.
William J. Usery Jr., a former union leader and skilled mediator, took over for the remainder of Ford’s term. Upon President Carter’s inauguration in 1977, Ray Marshall became secretary and oversaw the transfer of oversight for mines from the Interior Department as prescribed by the Mine Safety and Health Act.
That act created the department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, charging it with setting and enforcing employment standards and conducting annual inspections for mines.
It’s hard to believe that when I first joined the workforce, the concept of workers being legally entitled to safe and healthy workplaces was relatively new.
Today, thanks to OSHA and MSHA — and the efforts of their state partners and many employers, safety and health professionals, unions and advocates — there has been a dramatic improvement in workplace safety, with a significant drop in fatality and injury rates.
But until the rates are zero, our work will continue.
Carl Fillichio heads the Labor Department’s Office of Public Affairs and serves as the chair of the department’s centennial. This post is one in a series in which he explores the department’s impact over the past 100 years. To view a timeline of the department’s history, watch a special centennial video and learn more about its 100 years of service, visit dol.gov/100.