The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 is one of the surviving monuments of the era of progressive social legislation (extending from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s) during which Congress enacted the nation’s foundational health, safety and environmental laws. That statute empowered the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to write safety and health standards designed “to assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions.” A separate “general duty clause” required every employer to provide a workplace that was “free from recognized hazards” that were likely to cause “death or serious physical harm.”
During the ensuing four decades, OSHA’s efforts to implement that statute have brought about substantial reductions in workplace injuries and illnesses, but far too many workers are still hurt or killed.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. private sector employers in 2010 reported nearly 2.9 million injuries and around 200,000 workplace illnesses. The actual numbers are likely much higher because some employers underreport workplace injuries, and doctors frequently fail to inquire into the likelihood that particular diseases, like cancer, have a workplace origin. A total of 4,690 workers died on the job, which represents a fatality rate of about 3.6 deaths per 100,000 full-time employees. These rates declined slightly during the recession of 2009, but were on their way back up in 2010
The sad fact of occupational life in the United States is that OSHA has not lived up to its potential, primarily because for the 30 of the past 40 years, OSHA has been the subject of unrelenting attacks by the business community. These attacks have rendered OSHA largely incapable of promulgating new occupational safety and health standards and only barely able to enforce existing standards the general duty clause. In 2010, the Center for Progressive Reform published a report detailing serious regulatory dysfunction in OSHA due primarily to a lack of resources, a weakened regulatory process, intrusive review by the White House, and an outmoded statute.
Today we publish The Next OSHA: Progressive Reforms to Empower Workers,offering a wide variety of suggestions for how Congress, OSHA, and workers themselves can make the nation’s workplaces safer and healthier. I co-authored the report with fellow CPRMember Scholars Martha McCluskey, Sidney Shapiro and Rena Steinzor, and CPR Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Shudtz.