Have you seen the remarkable photographs of brave construction workers who built the Empire State Building and other skyscrapers in New York City? If you have, you probably marveled at how carefree they seemed to be, sitting on beams while eating their lunches, a slight breeze away from losing their lives.
Throughout most of this country’s history, safety awareness was not what it is today and workers’ lives in diverse workplaces were lost at unthinkable rates. Even in the early 1970s, an average of 38 U.S. workers died each day, and 10 percent of the workforce experienced a work-related injury or illness each year. In the industrial era, manufacturing technology grew rapidly, but the concept of safety standards and the technologies and equipment needed to implement them lagged behind.
1970: Creation of OSHA and the Occupational Safety and Health Act
To protect workers’ safety and health, the U.S. Department of Labor founded the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The agency was created by Congress under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which was signed by President Richard Nixon on December 29, 1970.
Opposed by many business groups, this legislation enabled the federal government to regulate safety in the workplace through OSHA. The agency’s statutory authority extends to most nongovernmental workplaces with employees. OSHA’s impact continues through to the present, with an impressive history of milestones that mark America’s progress in workplace health and safety over that 45+ year time span.
1971: Creation of First OSHA Standards
These new standards provide the baseline for safety and health protection in American workplaces. They become the foundation upon which subsequent laws will be added.
1972: Asbestos Standard
A regulation limiting workplace exposure to cancer-causing asbestos fibers is created. Asbestos was deemed to have been a cause of asbestosis (serious lung disease) and mesothelioma (cancer of the lungs and abdomen).
1972: State and Local Government Coverage
OSHA approved plans for the first states — South Carolina and Oregon — to adopt the agency’s standards in their states. Today, 27 states and territories operate OSHA-approved state plans.
1972: Construction Safety Standards
Regulations to protect construction workers operating aerial lifts, helicopters and electric power equipment were put in place.
1972 – 1973: Consumer Product Safety Act
A presidential commission report recommended the creation of an independent federal agency to set safety standards for consumer products. In 1973, the first four commissioners of the Consumer Product Safety Commission began their terms.
1974: Carcinogens Standards
OSHA issued a final rule that established comprehensive standards for 14 cancer-causing substances, which were found to have chronic health effects.
1974: Vinyl Chloride Standard
OSHA establishes limitations of exposure in manufacturing facilities for vinyl chloride, a flammable gas found to cause cancer of the liver.
1975: On-Site Consultation Program
A free service funded by OSHA was founded to help small employers identify and correct serious health hazards. It enabled them to train workers and supervisors to recognize workplace hazards and develop safety and health systems for worker protection.
1976: Coke Oven Emissions Standard
Coke oven emissions in steel production facilities caused lung cancer in exposed workers. This standard limited exposure and required the implementation of engineering controls.
1977: Federal Mine Safety and Health Act
The Coal Act was expanded to establish the Mine Safety and Health Administration within the Department of Labor.
1977: Diving Standard
OSHA creates regulations to protect workers in commercial diving operations.
1978: Cotton Dust Standard
Protected 600,000 workers in the textile industry from “brown lung.”
1979: Federal Emergency Management Agency
President Jimmy Carter created this agency from five existing agencies, by executive order.
1983: Hazard Communication Standard
This “Right to Know” regulation requires employers to inform and train millions of workers who are exposed to or handle toxic substances on how to limit health and safety risks.
1984: Air Bag and Seat Belt Mandate
Department of Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole issues a final rule mandating air bags and seat restraints in all cars after 1990.
1990: Laboratory Safety Standard
This regulation protected laboratory workers exposed to hazardous chemicals.
1991: Bloodborne Pathogens Standard
This regulation protected exposed workers from HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis B infection.
1992: Chemical Process Safety Management Standard
This standard reduced the risk of deadly fires and explosions for three million workers at 25,000 workplaces. It is thought to have prevented approximately 250 deaths each year since.
1996: Construction Scaffold Safety Standard
This regulation required safety measures to protect 2.3 million construction workers.
1998: U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board
This board began enforcement operations after authorization by the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.
2001: Steel Erection Standard
This regulation protected construction workers in steel erection, preventing approximately 30 fatalities each year.
2004: Fire Protection in Shipyard Standard
This regulation protected shipyard workers from fire hazards on vessels and on land-based facilities.
2010: Cranes and Derricks Standard
This new rule prevented the leading causes of deaths among crane and derrick operators on more than 250,000 worksites.
Today, workplace safety and health standards are taken for granted among most American workers. To appreciate how far we have come, it helps to reflect on these OSHA standards and the hundreds of thousands of lives they have saved.
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