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Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970

Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970

John P. Forren

With the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA) (84 Stat. 1690), Congress triggered a rapid and unprecedented expansion of the federal government's role in protecting worker health and well-being. For most Americans, the concerns that had prompted passage of this landmark law were hardly unfamiliar or new. Journalists and progressive reformers for nearly a century had highlightedoften with grisly tales of disfigurement and deathhow accidents in America's factories and mines had ruined thousands of workers' lives. Federal statistics compiled since 1911 had also documented a growing epidemic of work-related illness and disease. Still, Congress throughout the industrial period had done little to stem this tide. The broadest early federal reform measureslegislation establishing the U.S. Department of Labor in 1913 and banning exploitative child labor in 1938intentionally left most regulatory power over industrial working conditions with the states. Stronger federal laws, such as the Esch Act of 1912 (which effectively outlawed the production of white phosphorus matches) and the Walsh-Healey Public Contracts Act of 1936 (which barred federal contracts for companies operating hazardous worksites), applied only to targeted industries or small segments of the private sector.

By the late 1960s, however, prospects for a broader federal regulatory role had improved in several respects. For one thing, Americans in the wake of the New Deal and the civil rights movement had largely grown accustomed to federal oversight of activitieslike industrial productiononce controlled primarily by the states. For another thing, the federal judiciary had substantially adjusted the Constitution's balance of state and federal powers since the late 1930s so as to accommodate more aggressive national regulation. Most significantly, decades of regulatory failure had made clear to most observers that the nation's faith in state laws to protect workers' health and safety had long been tragically misplaced. On-the-job accident rates had continued to rise unabated; as the Secretary of Labor reported in 1969, disabling work-related injuries had increased by 20 percentup to 2.2. million per yearjust since 1958. State governments struggled constantly to pay for vigorous enforcement of their health and safety laws. And states, competing with each other to attract and retain manufacturing jobs, faced ever-stronger incentives to water down their safety standards in order to reduce the costs of businesses operating within their borders.


Citing a national crisis, President Lyndon B. Johnson submitted a comprehensive occupational safety and health bill to Congress in January 1968. Under Johnson's proposal, the U.S. Department of Labor would have been charged with establishing mandatory safety standards for most worksites throughout the nation. Employers also would have been assigned a new "general duty" to prevent on-the-job accidents and illnesses. What is more, to ensure compliancelong a problem under existing state lawsJohnson proposed a new corps of federal inspectors, to be armed with broad authority to investigate worksites and penalize violators. Labor groups immediately applauded Johnson's initiative and promised political support; yet in the end, the Johnson bill failed to come to a vote in either house of Congress in 1968. Industry groups lobbied vigorously against it from the outset, joined by pro-business legislators and "states' rights" activists fearing an expansion of federal regulatory authority. President Johnson, distracted by the Vietnam War, domestic upheaval, and election-year politics, never mounted an aggressive legislative campaign in response.

Despite this initial setback, workplace safety legislation emerged again in Congress the following year. Newly elected Republican President Richard M. Nixon, seeing an opportunity to siphon blue-collar voters away from opposition Democrats, announced his support for a modified occupational safety and health bill early in August 1969. Under Nixon's plan, the Labor Department would have carried out the task of workplace inspections in much the same way that President Johnson had envisioned; yet in a key change, Nixon sought to assign the power of establishing national safety and health standards to a new five-person board to be appointed by the president. Nixon also called for lighter penalties against violators and exemptions from the law for small employers. Business groups, led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, this time came out solidly in support of Nixon's division-of-power approach. Organized labor, however, rejected any watering down of Labor Department authority and rallied behind an alternative Senate Democratic bill instead.

Amidst this labor-management conflict, both legislative proposals bogged down in Congress for more than a year. But congressional Republicans broke the logjam in November 1970 when they agreed to lodge standards-making authority in a new agencythe Occupational Safety and Health Administrationwithin the Department of Labor. Democrats, in turn, agreed to dilute Occupational Safety and Health Administration's enforcement power by creating a separate appointed body, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, to judge cases involving possible industry violations. With this compromise in hand, both houses of Congress quickly agreed to a final version of the bill in a lame-duck December session. President Nixon dropped his remaining objections, and in a Labor Department ceremony attended by labor union and business leaders alike, Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act into law on December 29, 1970.

In its final form OSHA established a multifaceted federal approach toward improving workplace conditions. One set of provisions in the act established procedures aimed at promoting cooperation between OSHA regulators and state public health agencies. Another set of provisions created the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Healthnow part of the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionto carry out research into job-related accidents and diseases. Additional sections of the act required the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to collect and distribute up-to-date health and safety information to employers in high-risk industries. Extensive funding and outreach mechanisms were also established to assist small businesses and industries with outmoded technologies in their efforts to meet OSHA-promulgate workplace standards.

Beyond those measures, the act most notably granted to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration the direct authority to promulgate and enforce specific safety and health rules for almost every place of employment in the United States. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's primary mission, the act declares, is "to assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions." To that end, the agency must ensure that employers take any measures "reasonably necessary and appropriate" to protect workers' long-term health and safety. Mandatory OSHA standards may thus include extensive requirements of protective equipment, employee training, and monitoring of dangerous job sites. Agency compliance efforts may entail unscheduled worksite inspections and extensive record-keeping requirements. OSHA inspectors may impose sanctions and remedial measures on employers found in violation of promulgated standards. And in the event of "imminent" threats to worker safety or health, the agency may bypass its ordinary rule-making process and seek immediate injunctive relief in a federal district court.


By arming the agency with such broad regulatory and enforcement authority, OSHA's main architects in Congress clearly hoped for dramatic and lasting improvements in the health and well-being of American workers. Indeed, as one leading senator predicted during final floor debate, the Occupational Safety and Health Act would stand as "one of the truly great landmark pieces of social legislation in the history of [the] country." Yet over three decades later, reviews of the act and the administrative apparatus it created continue to be mixed at best. OSHA supporters point to compelling evidence of success: since 1970, workplace fatalities in the United States have decreased sharply, debilitating occupational diseases such as "brown lung" and asbestosis have virtually disappeared, and workers in American factories and mills now experience greatly reduced levels of exposure to such dangerous substances as cotton dust, lead, arsenic, beryllium metal and vinyl chloride. Yet critics of the agency question whether OSHA should be assigned significant credit for these achievements; technological advances and global economic changes, they say, have been the primary forces behind improvements in American worker safety and health. Further, critics from across the ideological spectrum attack the agency for failing to execute its mission with what they see as appropriate zeal. Naysayers on the political right complain that OSHA regulators too often ignore market remedies and impose workplace rules without adequate consideration of cost. Those on the left, meanwhile, sometimes fault the agency for watering down standards in the face of industry pressure and for failing to exercise sufficient independence during periods of pro-business Washington leadership.

Despite such criticisms, attempts to enact major revisions of OSHA since 1970 have consistently failed. Moreover, given the current bipartisan consensus about the need for active federal leadership in occupational safety and health, significant alterations of the act in the near future seem unlikely.

See also: Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938; Walsh-Healey Act.


Berman, Daniel M. Death on the Job: Occupational Health and Safety Struggles in the United States. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978.

Lofgren, Don J. Dangerous Premises: An Insider's View of OSHA Enforcement. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 1989.

McGarity, Thomas O., and Sidney A. Shapiro. Workers At Risk: The Failed Promise of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1993.

Rosner, David, and Gerald Markowitz, eds. Dying for Work: Workers' Safety and Health in Twentieth-Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

United States Department of Labor. All about OSHA. Washington, DC: OSHA Publications Office, 2000.

United States Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare. Legislative History of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1971.

Viscusi, W. Kip. Risk by Choice: Regulating Health and Safety in the Workplace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

White, Lawrence. Human Debris: The Injured Worker in America. New York: Seaview/Putnam, 1983.


Occupational Safety and Health Administration Home Page. <>.

Downfall of the OSHA

OSHA quickly became one of the federal government's most disliked agencies. Small-business owners complained that they were subject to voluminous and petty rules, as well as to arbitrary inspections. The problem resided in the fact that OSHA adopted a range of "consensus standards" previously defined by federal agencies, trade associations, and safety organizations. Some of these standards were ancient and deemed irrelevant, making OSHA the object of much scorn.

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Occupational Safety and Health Act


OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY AND HEALTH ACT. President Richard Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act into law on 29 December 1970. 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. Congress passed OSHA "to assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions." To meet this lofty goal, Congress created a vast federal bureaucracy empowered to regulate most businesses. OSHA touches nearly every American workplace and has become a landmark in the history of labor, employment, and public health law.

State regulation of workplace safety began as part of the Progressive response to the industrial revolution during the late nineteenth century. Early in the twentieth century, the burgeoning labor movement lobbied successfully for further regulation. Eventually, the federal government became involved in workplace safety during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency. 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 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. The AFL-CIO and other labor organizations urged President Lyndon Johnson to support the report's recommendations.

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, on 23 January 1968, Johnson adopted Secretary Wirtz's plan and urged Congress to act. Congress promptly introduced bills embodying the administration's proposal. Wirtz lobbied vigorously for the bills. He testified that each year 14,500 workers died, 2 million were disabled, and more than 7 million hurt as a result of industrial accidents, and that these numbers were steadily rising. He criticized state, local, and private programs as inadequate and fragmented and federal programs as incomplete. Labor unions, public interest groups, and health professionals supported the bills. Industry representatives opposed them. In part because of this opposition, the 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.

In 1969, President Nixon also 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.

The most controversial debate centered on the scope of the secretary of labor's authority. Democrats favored bills that gave the secretary power to issue occupational safety and health standards, to conduct inspections and impose sanctions, and to adjudicate appeals. Republicans wanted to establish two independent boards appointed by the president, one with authority to issue the standards and the other with authority to decide enforcement appeals. Republicans claimed they did not want to concentrate too much authority in one person, while Democrats worried that a separation of power would result in a weaker law.

Eventually, Republicans and Democrats worked out a compromise solution. The secretary of labor would create and oversee the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which would have the power to set standards, conduct inspections, and impose penalties for violators. A separate commission, called the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, would adjudicate appeals from businesses fined or otherwise penalized by the secretary of labor. Among other provisions, the compromise bill included a "general duty" clause for all businesses to keep the workplace free of recognized hazards likely to cause death or serious physical harm. In addition, the compromise granted employees the right to file complaints, accompany inspectors, and participate in Review Commission adjudications, and it prohibited reprisals against whistleblowers. Ultimately, the House of Representatives voted 308–60 in support of the compromise bill, and the Senate adopted it on a voice vote without debate.

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. It has only been amended once, in 1998, but these amendments were relatively minor.

Administrative rulemaking, however, has kept OSHA current by responding to changing dangers in the American workplace. After first setting standards for worker safety, OSHA shifted its focus to worker health, setting standards to protect workers from the insidious effects of asbestos, cancer-causing chemicals, beryllium, lead, cotton dust, carbon monoxide, dyes, radiation, pesticides, exotic fuels, and other toxins. In setting such standards, OSHA's jurisdiction has steadily expanded. The nature of workplace injuries has also changed, and OSHA has responded, for example, by setting new standards to alleviate repetitive stress disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome.

OSHA's impact on American business has also varied much in response to evolving administrative rulemaking. Under the administration of President Bill Clinton, OSHA attempted to shift from a top-down, command and control system in which the government tells industry what it should do or else, to a partnership between regulators and private businesses. Under a partnership system, businesses that proactively implement comprehensive safety and health programs obtain flexibility and leniency in meeting OSHA standards.


Levy, JoAnne. "OSHA—What's New at a 'Twenty-Something' Agency: Workplace Environmental Hazards." Missouri Environmental Law and Policy Review 1 (Fall 1993): 49.

Mendeloff, John. Regulating Safety: An Economic and Political Analysis of Safety and Health Policy. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1979. See especially the chapter "Political and Economic Perspectives on the Design of Occupational Safety and Health Policy."

Mintz, Benjamin W. OSHA: History, Law, and Policy. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of National Affairs, 1984.

Subcommittee on Labor, Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, Ninety-second Congress, First Session. Legislative History of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1971.

Shannon C.Petersen

See alsoEmployers' Liability Laws ; Government Regulation of Business ; Labor Legislation and Administration .

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Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970


Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, 29 U.S.C.A. § 651 et seq., a business that negligently jeopardizes the lives or health of its workers commits a federal misdemeanor.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 created the labor department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to serve as the federal government's workplace-safety watchdog, and the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC) to rule on cases, forwarded to it by the Labor Department, of disagreements over the results of OSHA safety and health inspections.

The act authorizes civil fines up to $10,000 for instances where employers "willfully" expose workers to "serious" harm or death. Any act of criminal negligence can result in imprisonment of up to six months.

The Labor Department's assistant secretary for occupational safety and health has responsibility for overseeing OSHA. OSHA has its headquarters in Washington, D.C., and maintains ten regional offices. It develops and promulgates occupational safety and health standards and it issues regulations that enforce these standards. The essence of OSHA is its inspection responsibility. OSHA inspectors conduct investigations and inspections to determine the status of compliance with safety and health standards and regulations. If an inspector visits a work site and finds that the employer is not in compliance with OSHA regulations, the inspector issues a citation and proposes penalties.

From its inception, OSHA has been a controversial agency. Businesses have complained that OSHA regulations are often too bureaucratic, rigid, and hard to understand, making compliance difficult. Organized labor, on the other hand, has charged that OSHA is not diligent enough in enforcing the regulations.

During the administration of President ronald reagan, the number of OSHA inspectors was reduced by 25 percent, making it even more difficult to investigate allegations of injuries. In addition, President Reagan, by executive order No. 12,291 in 1981, permitted OSHA to certify that a company was in compliance with safety and health standards by reviewing paperwork submitted by the company.

OSHA standards and regulations touch every facet of workplace health and safety. The regulations establish maximum levels of exposure to lead, asbestos, chemicals, and other toxic substances, and they specify the proper safety gear for workers. For example, construction workers who work on scaffolding or on structural steel must wear a safety harness.

During the late 1990s, questions arose about whether OSHA regulations applied to commuters and work-at-home employees. In a response to an inquiry about these questions in November 1999, OSHA stated that employers who allow employees to work at home were indeed responsible for any injuries that occurred in the employee's home. This interpretation would mean that employers would have to inspect each employee's home and, if necessary, make necessary corrections to the home design, including cooling, heating, and ventilation systems. Although OSHA claimed that the letter did not represent official policy, several businesses and members of Congress heavily criticized the letter.

OSHA withdrew the responses to the letter in January 2000. According to statements by OSHA spokespersons, the regulations do not apply to most white-collar commuters who work at home. However, regulations do apply to employees who conduct hazardous manufacturing from their homes.

OSHA's letter regarding the regulation of home offices did not end with the agency's withdrawal of its response. In 2001, President george w. bush introduced a series of proposals, named the "New Freedom Initiatives", designed to enhance the opportunities for disabled persons under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Among the proposals was a call to prevent OSHA from regulating home offices, including a specific reference to the 1999 OSHA letter.

OSHA works to improve health and safety through education and training programs. It also provides assistance to state occupational and health programs to maintain consistent national standards. Among its numerous initiatives, OSHA has sought to reduce ergonomic hazards in the workplace that cause pain and discomfort for millions of workers in the U.S. For example, in 2003, OSHA announced that it would work with the u.s. postal service to reduce ergonomic injuries among employees of the service.

Employers have the right to dispute any alleged job-safety or health violation found during an OSHA inspection, the penalties OSHA has proposed, or the time given by OSHA to correct any hazardous situation. Employees and union representatives may file a case challenging the propriety of the time that OSHA has allowed for correction of any violation.

These cases are heard by OSHRC, an independent, quasi-judicial agency. A case arises when a citation is issued against the employer as a result of an OSHA inspection and the employer contests the citation within 15 working days.

All cases that require a hearing are assigned to an administrative law judge (ALJ), who decides the case. The government has the burden of proof. A substantial number of the decisions of the ALJs become final orders of the commission. However, each decision is subject to discretionary review by the three members of the commission upon the direction of any one of the three, if done within 30 days of the filing of the decision. A party who is dissatisfied with an ALJ decision does not have a right of appeal to the commission but must convince at least one commissioner to exercise discretion and to agree to have the commission hear the appeal. When discretionary review is taken, the commission issues its own decision. Once a case is decided, any person who has been adversely affected may file an appeal with a U.S. court of appeals.

The principal office of the commission is located in Washington, D.C. There are also three regional offices where commission judges are stationed.

further readings

U.S. Government Manual Website. Available online at <> (accessed November 10, 2003).

OSHA Website. Available online at <> (accessed November 10, 2003).


Administrative Law and Procedure; Employment Law; Labor Law; Workers' Compensation.

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