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Workers Memorial Day

"Until child labor was made illegal, child labor was used. Until we have enforceable workplace protections, employers will not comply."

The Occupational Safety and Health Act, more commonly known as “OSHA,” went into effect on April 28th, 1971. 18 years later, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) declared April 28th to be a day of mourning for those who have lost their lives in the workplace/on the job. 

The first Assistant Secretary of Labor, George Guenther said in 1972: “I believe in 1990 we will be able to look back on the toll of workplace injury and illness as a thing of the past in much the same way we can now look back on polio and tuberculosis.” Especially after the past few years of pandemic, it’s disappointing to see this hasn’t come true.

Passed under the Nixon administration, OSHA saw resistance from many, at first. Nixon himself was a strong supporter, though constrained the potential positive impact of OSHA by ensuring that any safety modifications made in a workplace must be screened to ensure no national economic goals would be “unduly sacrificed.” This policy was continued under Ford, but a lot changed when Carter took office. 

While unions were politically influential, OSHA made great progress in advancing workplace safety regulations. Especially during the Carter administration (‘77-’81) under Director Eula Bingham, OSHA set standards for carcinogens, neurotoxins, heavy metals, and more. Dr. Bingham, also a policy advisor for National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) said of the era: “We had such loud, knowledgeable, vibrant voices. The time was right.” Yet even under Carter OSHA was threatened: White House policy advisors recommended OSHA be replaced with economic incentives for employers. After unions spoke out against the policy, it was scrapped.

When Reagan defeated Carter in 1980, however, Dr Bingham was swiftly replaced with neoliberal construction executive Thorne Auchter, who predictably argued overregulation was hurting America (despite Bingham having overturned many pedantic and redundant regulatory OSHA statutes during her tenure as Assistant Secretary of Labor). Under Auchter, informative brochures with depictions of workplace injuries and illnesses were recalled. Bingham’s close ties with the labor movement were cut. Auchter slashed OSHA staff by nearly a quarter and said of his changes “My feeling is that the government should regulate as little as possible.” Scientific and public health whistleblowers were punished, with then-Congressman Al Gore calling the issue “a blatant attempt to rid the government of a competent scientist who happened not to agree with an industry whose profits are at stake.” (In 2000, Auchter’s 22-year old son died in a preventable construction accident. When Thorne Auchter was asked if he had any regrets or had changed his thinking on workplace regulation, he declined. He sued the construction company for 2.3 million.)

Since then, OSHA has seen debilitating losses in the courtroom and Congress. Under Bush, an ergonomics rule related to repetitive work was tossed. In 2013, OSHA did the remarkable: publicly admitted its own failure. Dr. David Michaels, director at the time, said “There is no question that many of OSHA’s chemical standards are not adequately protective. I advise employers, who want to ensure that their workplaces are safe, to utilize the occupational exposure limits on these annotated tables, since simply complying with OSHA’s antiquated PELs will not guarantee that workers will be safe.”

The fact that we need to have workplace standards such as OSHA and NIOSH–even child labor–show that our employers would not elect to protect us without proper motivation. Until child labor was made illegal, child labor was used. Until we have enforceable workplace protections, employers will not comply. Until OSHA has more regulatory power and autonomy, we will consider losing workers to preventable causes.

Worker Justice Wisconsin discusses OSHA and workplace safety in our Know Your Rights training. If you’re interested in attending a session, please email info@workerjustice.org.