Business Politics

Employee Safety Regulations

The political community has always been one of the prime upholders of safety in the workplace. Rightly so, for if no measures were in place to guarantee the safety of a nation’s workforce, prevalent accidents and disability cases will, one way or the other, weaken its economy if left unchecked.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) is the federal law that oversees occupational health and safety in the federal government and private sector of the United States. It was enacted by Congress in 1970 and in December 29 of the same year, was signed by Richard Nixon, president at that time. Its objective was to guarantee that business owners provide workers with a work area free from dangers that include exposure to hazardous substances, dangerous machinery, unacceptable noise levels, extreme heat and cold and conditions that are unsanitary.

The Act is located in the United States Code (title 29, Chapter 15).

What follows is the history of how old business practices and the lobbying of politicians have led to the early forms of safety laws and measures in the workplace.

Drives made by the United States federal government in ensuring healthy and safe workplaces were minimal until the formation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Mass production — a system prevalent in America — encouraged the utilization of machinery but government in the past didn’t do anything substantial to protect the workplace. For most businesses, it was more financially convenient to replace an injured or dead worker than it was to integrate safety measures into their day-to-day operations. Tort law, which provides recompense and solutions to civil wrongs that do not spring from contractual duties, didn’t really provide substantial enough recompense for dependents of dead workers or for maimed employees. After the US Civil War, a number of improvements where rolled out through formation of factory and state railroad commissions, the surge of life insurance availability, and the introduction of more advanced — and safer — technologies. The total impact of these developments was only minimal though.

In 1910, a stream of lethal mine detonations and collapses spurred Congress to establish the federal Bureau of Mines, whose raison d’etre was to conduct research into mine safety. It was also during this time that multiple states, which were then backed by several trade unions, made workers’ compensation laws that disallowed business owners from operating in hazardous work environments. For a time, these promulgate laws and the growing dissent of labor unions toward insufficient workplace safety served to mitigate work-related accidents.

However, when World War II struck, industrial production in the Unites States rose, and with it, industrial accidents. Needless to say, victory took precedence rather than the safety of the employee. Also, labor unions were more worried with maintaining operations in that bleak period, rather than safety and health. However, ironically after the war, accidents in the workplace began to rise. In the two years before the enactment of OSHA, 14,000 workers perished annually and 2 million were injured or maimed irrevocably. Furthermore, the “chemical revolution” introduced myriad chemical compound to the industries. At that time, the effects of these substances were not sufficiently understood and the average worker had few countermeasures against extended and/or high levels of exposure to the compounds. To make matters worse, only New York and California had enacted workplace safety measures during that period.

In the middle of the ’60s, the rise of awareness on the impact that many of the chemicals have on the environment gave way to a politically-potent environmental movement. On January 23, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented an extensive occupational health and safety bill to Congress. This was vehemently opposed by business, with the National Association of Manufacturers and the United States Chamber of Commerce at the helm of the opposition. To exacerbate the situation, numerous leaders did not advocate for the legislation, saying that workers had no interest in the bill. It expired in committee.

On April 14, 1969 presented two bills into Congress that aimed to protect the safety and health of workers. The legislation introduced by Nixon was more lenient than the one presented by Johnson. Also, in those bills, workplace regulations about health and safety were more advisory than mandatory. Representatives Senator Harrison Williams and James O’Hara presented a much austere bill akin to that of the Johnson bill. This bill was more appealing for both chambers. This time, the unions strongly supported the bill. With these developments, the Republicans also presented a competing bill, which gave the Department of Labor the authority to litigate on behalf or the enforcement agency. In November, 1970, both Houses passed their bills.

The Republicans’ proposal to form an independent occupational safety and health organization won while the Democrats managed to push for the inclusion of a “general duty” clause for enforcing agencies and the right for representatives of unions to coordinate with federal inspections.

These events led to the signing of the bills by President Nixon in 1970.

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