It’s hard to believe today that 40 years ago, before the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) was established, most workers in America had no basic human right to safe workplaces.
Four decades ago, if a worker feared injury, illness, or death from hazardous equipment or chemicals in the workplace, the choice was often stark: Ignore the dangers and keep working to support your family, or quit and look for another job.
In 1970, 14,000 working men, women and teens ― or 38 every day of the year ― died from a workplace injury. Many thousands more were injured. Countless others died from lingering, disabling diseases caused by exposure to occupational hazards like lead, silica, or asbestos.
April 28 is Workers Memorial Day, a day we set aside to remember the dead and fight for all living workers (to paraphrase Mother Jones’ rallying cry). It is also the birthday of OSHA. The OSH Act of 1970 created OSHA, and on April 28, 1971 the new agency opened its doors with a mission to protect workers and end the carnage in our workplaces.
In signing the OSH Act, President Richard Nixon called it “…one of the most important pieces of legislation… ever passed by the Congress of the United States.” Morton Corn, the OSHA administrator under President Gerald Ford, said OSHA “was the instrument of a revolutionary law… a new right in the Bill of Rights ― the right to a safe and healthful workplace.”
Forty years of common-sense standards and strong enforcement have saved thousands of lives and prevented countless injuries. Instead of 38 workplace deaths, now 12 workers die on the job every day. That’s still 12 too many, but we’ve made great progress.
OSHA continues to strive for stronger legal protections for workers, increased public awareness of workers’ rights, and more active cooperation between employers and workers to eliminate hazards.
This week, for example, Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis is announcing a new campaign to protect outdoor workers on farms and construction sites from the hazards of extreme heat. We are confronting the dangers of distracted driving among a growing mobile workforce by encouraging employers to forbid workers from texting, talking on a cell phone, or e-mailing while driving. We are working to make sure construction workers are protected from fatal falls. We are also developing a standard to protect workers from silicosis, a devastating lung disease caused by exposure to dust from cutting, drilling, or blasting stone and concrete.
Every day, we see the evidence that OSHA’s efforts make a critical difference. Last month, Rick Burns, an OSHA inspector in Ohio, observed a worker in an unstable 10-foot trench and directed the employer to immediately remove the worker from the potential death trap. The employer complied and, minutes later, the trench collapsed.
Then, just last week, compliance officer Eliseo Hernandez and Assistant Area Director Joseph Roesler from OSHA’s Mobile, Ala., Area Office, were traveling to an inspection near Auburn, Ala., when they spotted potential tragedy and stopped to investigate. They noticed an excavation site where two employees were working in a five-and-a-half-foot trench under an excavator bucket connecting a water line. The OSHA officers had the employees quickly removed from the hazard and, moments later, the trench collapsed.
In both cases, no one was hurt, and OSHA’s emphasis program on excavation and trenching demonstrated its value.
So, today, while grieving for those lives lost from unsafe conditions on the job, I’m also grateful to these well-trained and conscientious OSHA staff members for their decisive actions.
And this year on Workers Memorial Day, OSHA and the Department of Labor are establishing a long-overdue memorial to America’s fallen workers. On the grounds of the Labor Department’s national office, the Frances Perkins Building in Washington, D.C., OSHA has planted an America Dogwood. This strong, resilient tree will serve as a living symbol of the roots of OSHA’s commitment to every worker in America. Its new leaves each spring will symbolize the hope that we hold for better days ahead for workers everywhere.
Dr. David Michaels is the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health.