OSHA's 30th Anniversary

OSHA at 30: Three Decades of Progress in Occupational Safety and Health

[The following article has been condensed and reproduced from the Spring 2001 issue of JSHQ Magazine]

Also see Statement by Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao on OSHA's 30th Anniversary

Icon Image of Spring 2001 JSHQ Magazine Cover

The late '60s was a turbulent time in America. The nation faced serious concerns both abroad and at home. Civil rights, women's rights, Vietnam, and the environment all demanded the country's attention.

At the same time, occupational injuries and illnesses were increasing in both number and severity. Disabling injuries increased 20 percent during the decade, and 14,000 workers were dying on the job each year. In pressing for prompt passage of workplace safety and health legislation, New Jersey Senator Harrison A. Williams Jr. said, "The knowledge that the industrial accident situation is deteriorating, rather than improving, underscores the need for action now." He called attention to the need to protect workers against such hazards as noise, cotton dust, and asbestos, all now covered by OSHA standards.

In the House, Representative William A. Steiger worked for passage of a bill. "In the last 25 years, more than 400,000 Americans were killed by work-related accidents and disease, and close to 50 million more suffered disabling injuries on the job," he pointed out during the debate. "Not only has this resulted in incalculable pain and suffering for workers and their families, but such injuries have cost billions of dollars in lost wages and production."

On December 29, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon signed The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, also known as the Williams-Steiger Act in honor of the two men who pressed so hard for its passage.

The Act established three permanent agencies:

  • the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) within the Labor Department to set and enforce workplace safety and health standards;
  • the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in what was then the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to conduct research on occupational safety and health; and
  • the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (OSHRC), an independent agency to adjudicate enforcement actions challenged by employers.

Known initially as "the safety bill of rights," the OSH Act charged OSHA with assuring safe and healthful conditions for working men and women. From its earliest days, OSHA was a small agency with a big mission. When the agency opened for business in April 1971, OSHA covered 56 million workers at 3.5 million workplaces. Today, 105 million private-sector workers and employers at 6.9 million sites look to OSHA for guidance on workplace safety and health issues.

OSHA was created because of public outcry against rising injury and death rates on the job. Through the years the agency has focused its resources where they can have the greatest impact in reducing injuries, illnesses, and deaths in the workplace.

Over the past three decades, agency strategies have evolved in keeping with events and needs of the times. In response to tragedies, OSHA established a standard to prevent grain elevator explosions and published a process safety management standard to forestall chemical catastrophes caused by inadequate planning and safety systems. OSHA has also focused on emerging health issues such as bloodborne pathogens and musculoskeletal disorders.

OSHA's enforcement strategy has evolved from initially targeting a few problem industries to zeroing in on high-hazard industries and more recently, pinpointing specific sites with high injury rates. Education and outreach have played important roles in dealing with virtually every safety or health issue.

In the beginning...

OSHA's first task was to assemble a staff and, following its congressional mandate, to adopt federal standards and voluntary consensus standards in place at organizations such as the American National Standards Institute, the National Fire Protection Administration, and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists. Congress gave OSHA 2 years to put an initial base of standards in place by adopting these widely recognized and accepted standards. Other standards were to be issued through notice and comment rulemaking.

OSHA published its first consensus standards on May 29, 1971. Some of those standards, including permissible exposure limits for more than 400 toxic substances, remain in effect today. Others have been updated or expanded through public rulemaking, dropped as unnecessary or overly specific, or amended to clarify their intent.

OSHA's first original standard limited worker exposure to asbestos, a proven carcinogen. Standards for a group of carcinogens, vinyl chloride, coke oven emissions, cotton dust, lead, benzene, dibromochloropropane, arsenic, acrylonitrile, and hearing conservation followed. Early standards responded to health issues well known to the occupational safety and health community.

During this period, OSHA employed several enforcement strategies. Initially the agency emphasized voluntary compliance with inspections dedicated to catastrophic accidents and the most dangerous and unhealthful workplaces. Later, the agency adopted a "get tough" stance that evolved to a more targeted approach based on significant hazards. OSHA further refined its inspection targeting system in the late 1970s to focus 95 percent of health inspections on industries with the most serious problems. The agency also established special emphasis programs focused on foundries and grain elevators.

Congress recognized when debating safety and health legislation that several states already were operating effective occupational safety and health programs. The law, therefore, provided an option for states that wanted to run their own OSHA programs to apply to OSHA to do so. States could receive up to 50-percent funding from OSHA for their programs once they received OSHA's preliminary approval. Participating states had to adopt a program comparable to the federal one, with standards at least as effective as federal standards. Additionally, states running their own programs were required to cover state and local government employees.

OSHA approved the first state plans, for South Carolina, Montana, and Oregon, in late 1972. Today, 24 states and 2 territories now operate programs covering private-sector and state and local government employees. Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York have state plans that cover public employees only.

States with their own OSHA programs conduct inspections to enforce health and safety standards and provide occupational safety and health training and education. In addition, they provide free onsite consultation to help employers identify and correct workplace hazards.

Early on, OSHA established its own Training Institute in the Chicago area to instruct its inspectors and provide limited training to employers and employees. During the mid-1970s, OSHA expanded its expertise in occupational health both through increased training and hiring of industrial hygienists to address workplace health issues.

To encourage voluntary compliance and assist businesses, particularly small businesses, OSHA established free onsite consultation programs, delivered through state authorities, in 1975. The agency took its outreach efforts a step further in 1978 with its New Directions grants program. The program provided seed money to other organizations to develop and offer safety and health training to employers and employees.


In the 1980s, OSHA began to focus on minimizing regulatory burdens. The agency relied more on computers to track its activities and provide accountability. Its goal was to provide a balanced mix of enforcement, education and training, standard-setting, and consultation activities.

Major new health standards introduced during OSHA's second decade included requirements to provide employees access to medical and exposure records maintained by their employers; hazard communication; and more stringent requirements for asbestos, ethylene oxide, formaldehyde, and benzene. Safety standards covered a wide range of issues such as updated fire protection and electrical safety, field sanitation in agriculture, grain handling, hazardous waste operations and emergency response, and lockout/tagout of hazardous energy sources.

In the early 1980s, OSHA worked to refine its inspection targeting system to zero in on the most hazardous companies within the most hazardous industries. On arrival at a workplace, OSHA inspectors would review an em-ployer's injury records. Employers with injury rates at or below average were exempted from inspection. In 1986, OSHA adopted a policy of imposing instance-by-instance penalties on companies with egregious violations, significantly raising penalties for companies with many willful violations.

OSHA expanded its voluntary compliance efforts in several important ways during the 1980s. Free consultations increased, and the program included, for the first time, a 1-year inspection exemption for employers who participated in a comprehensive consultation visit. In 1982, the agency established the Voluntary Protection Programs to recognize worksites with exemplary safety and health programs. Drawing on its experience with VPP sites, OSHA issued voluntary guidelines for safety and health programs in 1989.

During this period, many states running their own OSHA programs received final approval from the agency verifying that their programs met all the criteria for OSHA to relinquish concurrent federal enforcement. By the end of the decade, 25 jurisdictions were operating their own OSHA programs.

Third Decade

In its third decade, OSHA re-examined its goals as part of the overall government reinvention process, looking for ways to leverage its resources and increase its impact in reducing workplace injuries, illnesses, and deaths. The "New OSHA" focused on reducing red tape, streamlining standard setting, and inspecting workplaces that most needed help in protecting employees. The emphasis was on results.

As part of its reinvention effort, the agency reorganized its area offices to provide rapid response to worker complaints and workplace tragedies as well as to focus on long-term strategies to lower job-related fatalities, injuries, and illnesses. OSHA instituted a phone-fax policy to speed the resolution of complaints and focus investigation resources on the most serious problems.

Many standards published during the 1990s relied on a performance-oriented approach -- setting specific goals for worker safety and health -- but providing flexibility in how those goals were to be met. Major safety standards included process safety management, permit-required confined spaces, fall protection in construction, electrical safety-related work practices, and scaffolds.

OSHA broke new ground in 1991 by introducing a bloodborne pathogens standard to address biological hazards. During the 1990s, the agency also updated its asbestos, formaldehyde, methylene chloride, personal protective equipment, and respiratory protection standards; developed a standard covering lead exposure in construction; and issued rules to protect laboratory workers exposed to toxic chemicals. OSHA also issued guidelines for preventing workplace violence in health care and social services work and in late-night retail establishments.

The agency continued to refine its inspection targeting system to focus on serious violators, proposing sizable penalties when inspectors found sites where safety and health problems were most serious. OSHA looked more closely at ergonomics and published guide-lines for the meatpacking industry. In 1990, Congress increased maximum penalties for OSHA violations from $1,000 to $7,000 for serious violations and from $10,000 to $70,000 for willful and repeat violations.

During the mid-1990s, OSHA began collecting data annually from about 80,000 employers in high-hazard industries to identify sites with high injury and illness rates. In 1999, the agency adopted the Site Specific Targeting Program, which for the first time directed inspections to individual workplaces with the worst safety and health records. Injury and illness rates and fatalities declined significantly during this decade.

Outreach grew as an important component of OSHA's work in the 1990s. To make safety and health training more easily accessible, in 1992 OSHA made available several of its training courses at community colleges and universities by selecting sites as OSHA Training Institute Education Centers. This move resulted in 12 centers offering courses covering compliance with general safety and health requirements as well as specific topics such as machine guarding.

The agency launched an Internet webpage in the early 1990s, significantly expanding its offerings in 1995 to include all regulations, compliance directives, Federal Register notices and many additional materials as well as links to other safety and health re-sources. OSHA's interactive expert advisor software, which offers tailor-made guidance for employers in complying with safety and health standards, was also made available via the web.

Emphasis on partnerships increased dramatically in the 1990s, and participation in the agency's premier effort, the Voluntary Protection Programs, increased eight-fold. OSHA also formed partnerships with companies that wanted to improve their safety and health records, beginning with the Maine 200 program, which encouraged employers with many injuries at their sites to find and fix hazards and establish safety and health programs. This cooperative approach led to the OSHA Strategic Partnership Program -- special local partnerships emphasizing effective safety and health programs and focusing on specific hazards or industries. OSHA also created national partnerships with ConAgra Refrigerated Foods, the Associated General Contractors, and the Associated Building Contractors.

2000 and Beyond

As the new century began, OSHA was broadening its out-reach efforts, with new compliance assistance specialists slated to join every area office to provide safety seminars, training, and guidance to employers and employees upon request. The agency significantly increased its Susan Harwood grant program to enable nonprofit groups to provide safety and health training for employers and employees.

More and more the agency used its website to provide information to its customers. Nearly 1.4 million visitors use the site each month for a total of 23 million hits. As many as 300,000 people each month download OSHA's Expert Advisor software, identified as a finalist in the 2000 Innovations in American Government Awards. The agency recently added an improved small business page, a partnership page, and a workers' page to its website to make its information more readily available and easily accessible. The workers' page enables concerned employees to file complaints online. Along with its counterparts in the European Union, OSHA set up a joint website on job safety and health issues of concern to many countries.

OSHA also published a new user-friendly poster, and the agency's 800 number, prominently displayed on the poster, can now be used to report all complaints, not just life-threatening situations.

In addition, OSHA explored distance learning options via satellite and computer to provide broader access to worker safety and health training. The agency sought to address the challenge of reaching immigrant and temporary workers. Agency staff members also challenged themselves to improve customer service.

On the regulatory front, OSHA completed work on its ergonomics program standard to reduce musculoskeletal disorders in general industry, updated its recordkeeping rule, and issued a steel erection rule based on negotiated rulemaking. OSHA also revised its bloodborne pathogen standard to clarify the need for employers to consider adopting safer medical devices to prevent needlesticks.

New rules issued at the end of the Clinton Administration were made part of an overall review by the incoming Bush Administration in January 2001.

OSHA has come a long way in three decades. The U.S. occupational injury rate is 40 percent lower than when OSHA opened for business in 1971. Deaths from occupational injuries are at an all-time low -- 60 percent lower than 30 years ago. The agency has made great progress, but its work is far from done.

As OSHA looks to its fourth decade, it must continue its focus on reducing injuries, illnesses, and fatalities in traditional industries. At the same time, it must look ahead to the challenges of the future -- new chemicals and other hazards in the workplace, growing service sector industries, and changing work force needs. After 30 years, OSHA is still a small agency with a big mission.

OSHA 30-Year Milestones

Since OSHA's establishment in 1971, workplace fatalities have been cut by 60 percent, and occupational injury and illness rates, by 40 percent. At the same time, U.S. employment has nearly doubled from 56 million workers at 3.5 million worksites to 105 million workers at nearly 6.9 million sites. The following milestones mark the agency's progress over the past 30 years in improving working environments for America's work force.

December 29, 1970
President Richard M. Nixon signs the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.

May 29, 1971
First standards adopted to provide baseline for safety and health protection in American workplaces.

January 17, 1972
OSHA Training Institute established to instruct OSHA inspectors and the public.

November-December 1972
First states (South Carolina, Montana, Oregon) approved to run their own OSHA programs.

May 20, 1975
Free consultation program created. Nearly 400,000 businesses will participate during the next 25 years.

January 20, 1978
D.C. Court of Appeals decision requires compliance staffing benchmarks for state plans to be considered "fully effective."

April 12, 1978
New Directions grants program created to promote occupational safety and health training and education for employers and workers. (Nearly 1 million students will be trained during the next 22 years.)

June 23, 1978
Cotton dust standard issued to protect 600,000 workers from byssinosis. Cases of "brown lung" will decline from 12,000 to 700 during the next 22 years.

November 14, 1978
Lead standard published to reduce permissible exposures by three-quarters to protect 835,000 workers from damage to nervous, urinary, and reproductive systems. (The construction standard is adopted in 1995.)

February 26, 1980
Supreme Court decision on Whirlpool affirms workers' rights to engage in safety and health-related activities.

May 23, 1980
Medical and exposure records standard finalized to permit worker and OSHA access to employer-maintained medical and toxic exposure records.

July 2, 1980
Supreme Court decision voids OSHA's benzene standard, establishing the principle that OSHA standards must address and reduce "significant risks" to workers.

September 12, 1980
Fire protection standard updated and rules established for fire brigades responsible for putting out nearly 95 percent of worksite fires.

January 16, 1981
Electrical standards updated to simplify compliance and adopt a results-oriented approach to performance standards.

July 2, 1982
Voluntary Protection Programs created to recognize worksites with outstanding safety and health programs. Nearly 700 sites currently participate.

November 25, 1983
Hazard communication standard issued to provide information and training and labeling of toxic materials for manufacturing employers and employees. Other industries are added on August 24, 1987.

November-December 1984
First "final approvals" granted to state plans (Virgin Islands, Hawaii, Alaska), resulting in relinquishment of concurrent federal enforcement authority.

April 1, 1986
First instance-by-instance penalties proposed against an employer -- in this case, Union Carbide's plant in Institute, WV, for egregious violations involving respiratory protection and injury and illness recordkeeping.

December 31, 1987
Standard on grain handling facilities adopted to protect 155,000 workers at nearly 24,000 grain elevators from the risk of fire and explosion from highly combustible grain dust.

January 26, 1989
Safety and Health Program Management Guidelines published to encourage voluntary safety and health programs based on Voluntary Protection Program successes.

March 6, 1989
Standard on hazardous waste operations and emergency response issued to protect 1.75 million public and private sector workers exposed to toxic wastes from spills or at hazardous waste sites.

September 1, 1989
Standard on lockout/tagout of hazardous energy sources issued to protect 39 million workers from unexpected activation or start up of machines or equipment, preventing 120 deaths and 50,000 injuries each year.

December 6, 1991
Standard on occupational exposure to bloodborne pathogens published to prevent more than 9,000 infections and 200 deaths per year, protecting 5.6 million workers against AIDS, hepatitis B, and other diseases.

February 24, 1992
Standard on process safety management of highly hazardous chemicals adopted to reduce fire and explosion risks for 3 million workers at 25,000 workplaces, preventing more than 250 deaths and more than 1,500 injuries each year.

October 1, 1992
OSHA Training Institute Education Centers created to make the agency's training courses more widely available to employers, workers, and the public. To date, 12 centers have trained more than 50,000 students.

January 14, 1993
Standard on confined spaces published to prevent more than 50 deaths and more than 5,000 serious injuries annually for 1.6 million workers who enter confined spaces at 240,000 workplaces each year.

February 1, 1993
Maine 200 program created to promote safety and health programs at companies with high numbers of injuries and illnesses.

June 27, 1994
First Expert Advisor software, GoCad, issued to help employers comply with OSHA's cadmium standard.

August 9, 1994
Standard on fall protection in construc-tion revised to save 79 lives and prevent 56,400 injuries each year.

August 10, 1994
Asbestos standard updated to cut permissible exposures in half for nearly 4 million workers, preventing 42 cancer deaths annually.

September 4, 1995
Formal launch of OSHA's expanded web- page to provide OSHA standards and compliance assistance via the Internet.

June 6, 1996
Phone-fax complaint-handling policy adopted to speed resolution of complaints of unsafe or unhealthful working conditions.

August 30, 1996
Scaffold standard published to protect 2.3 million construction workers and prevent 50 deaths and 4,500 injuries annually.

November 9, 1998
OSHA Strategic Partnership Program launched to improve workplace safety and health through national and local cooperative, voluntary agreements.

April 19, 1999
Site Specific Targeting Program established to focus OSHA resources where most needed -- on individual worksites with the highest injury and illness rates.

Final rules published covering ergonomics, recordkeeping, steel erection, needle-sticks, and washed cotton. At press time, the rules were under review by the Bush Administration.

Voices from the Past

Here's what congressional and presidential leaders were saying three decades ago as they urged passage of a comprehensive occupational safety and health bill to protect America's workers.

"Today we are asking our workers to perform far different tasks from those they performed 5 or 15 or 50 years ago. It is only right that the protection we give them is also up to date."
President Richard M. Nixon, August 6, 1969

"The chemical and physical hazards which characterize modern industry are not the problem of a single employer, a single industry, nor a single state jurisdiction. The spread of industry and the mobility of the workforce combine to make the health and safety of the worker truly a national concern."
Senator Harrison A. Williams Jr.

"The bill reported herewith is the most important piece of legislation affecting American workers to be considered by Congress in many years....There is no dispute that a strong federal occupational health and safety program is necessary if we are to achieve a real diminution in this industrial carnage. The statistics on occupational injury, disease, and death show all too clearly that private industry and the States are not doing an adequate job of insuring health and safety in the workplace."
Senator Jacob Javits

"It is estimated that 55 workers die every day because of the failure to have adequate occupational health and safety legislation....We have worked long and hard on this matter. I do not think there is any measure before this body that is anywhere near as important or which rates a higher priority than this legislation."
Senator Walter Mondale

"In only 4 years time, as many people have died because of their employment as have been killed in almost a decade of American involvement in Vietnam. Over 2 million workers are disabled annually through job-related accidents."
Representative Carl D. Perkins

"When 75 out of every 100 teenagers now entering the work force can expect to suffer a disabling injury sometime in his working career, I believe it is time that we face the goal of occupational safety and health not as a matter for partisan politics, but as a challenge to the science and technology of our country."
Representative William S. Broomfield