OSHA’s Birthday

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Mark Catlin

Mark Catlin

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Forty-seven years ago, on this date (December 29) in 1970, President Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) which passed Congress with wide bipartisan support. The final bill passed the House of Representatives by 308-60 and the Senate adopted it on a voice vote without debate. Today’s video has the remarks of President Nixon at the signing ceremony. OSHA was part of Nixon’s "blue collar strategy" to attract working class support for his administration. It is interesting that his wife, Pat Nixon’s father, a miner, had died from silicosis. Congress passed the OSH Act "to assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions."

OSHA touches nearly every American workplace and has become a landmark in the history of labor, employment, and public health law. Early in the twentieth century, the burgeoning labor movement lobbied successfully for workplace safety protections. Eventually, the federal government became more involved in workplace safety during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency.

In 1965, the Public Health Service published an influential report that outlined some of the recently discovered technological dangers, including chemicals linked to cancer. The report called for a major national occupational health effort, criticizing existing federal law as too limited and state programs as uncoordinated and insufficient. In 1968, 14,500 workers died, 2 million were disabled, and more than 7 million hurt as a result of industrial accidents—these numbers were steadily rising. The AFL-CIO and other labor organizations urged President Lyndon Johnson to support the report's recommendations. Labor unions, public interest groups, and health professionals supported proposed worker safety legislation, but industry opposition stopped its passage. In 1969, newly elected President Nixon called for the enactment of a federal occupational safety and health law, though his proposal was substantially weaker than the one introduced by his predecessor. Republicans in Congress introduced bills reflecting the administration's proposal, and, sensing that some worker safety law must pass, industry switched its position and supported these bills.

Democrats in Congress introduced stronger legislation supported by the labor unions, a nascent environmental movement, and consumer advocates like Ralph Nader. Soon after its passage, OSHA became a powerful presence in American workplaces. Many businesses deeply resented the government for telling them how to operate, and the act provoked much controversy.

Despite this controversy, however, OSHA itself has remained relatively unchanged.

Sometimes referred to as the Williams-Steiger Act, after its chief sponsors, Democratic Senator Harrison Williams of New Jersey and Republican Representative William Steiger of Wisconsin, the act is known mostly by its familiar acronym, OSHA.

With the Act, Congress created a vast federal bureaucracy empowered to regulate most businesses. State regulation of workplace safety began as part of the Progressive response to the industrial revolution during the late nineteenth century. In 1936, as part of Roosevelt's New Deal, Congress passed the Walsh-Healey Public Contracts Act, which allowed the Department of Labor to ban federal contract work done under hazardous conditions. Under the leadership of Frances Perkins, Roosevelt's secretary of labor and the first woman cabinet member, the federal government aggressively asserted its authority to regulate private business. By the 1960s, however, changes in American industry exposed the ineffectiveness of existing state and federal laws.

In 1966, President Johnson directed his secretary of labor, Willard Wirtz, to develop a comprehensive national program to protect workers. In the wake of alarming revelations about cancer among uranium miners, Johnson adopted Secretary Wirtz's plan, in 1968, and urged Congress to act. Congress promptly introduced bills embodying the administration's proposal. Wirtz lobbied vigorously for the bills. He criticized state, local, and private programs as inadequate and fragmented and federal programs as incomplete.

Industry representatives opposed Nixon’s legislation, as two bills failed to pass Congress in 1968. They also failed because Vietnam War protest, President Johnson's decision not to run for reelection, riots in the inner cities, and other events diverted congressional and national attention away from worker safety and health.

Ultimately, the House of Representatives voted in support of a compromise bill, and, soon after its passage, OSHA became a powerful presence in American workplaces.

The OSH Act has only been amended once, in 1998, but these amendments were relatively minor.

For more on the history and accomplishments of OSHA.