An essay by Andrew Keefe
Before the 1970s, employers were mainly responsible for the occupational safety of their workers. This system didn't work, as approximately 14,000 to 15,000 American workers were dying on the job each year (The Nation, Feb. 10, 1969). The only options for an employee were switching jobs, or bargaining, if they were fortunate enough to belong to a union. The insurance system was the main motivation employers had to prevent hazards; fear of providing injured employees with workers' compensation. Regulatory authority was divided between national and local government, which led to conflicts rather than solutions. This was a growing problem in the 1960s when economic and technical factors increased the industrial accident rate. While there were arrangements set up between unions and corporations to regulate collective bargaining, social security, and economic growth, they ultimately limited workers' power as a whole and left health care and safety as secondary issues. National Union officials were, for the most part, indifferent to the problem and often bargained away job safety for wage gains, health programs, pension plans, and unemployment insurance.
In the 1960s, occupational safety and health became a publicized issue due to a small group of rank and file labor activists who were able to gain both government and public attention to the subject. The three most influential people in the movement were Anthony Mazzocchi, George Taylor, and John Sheehan. Mazzocchi, who was at the time an OCAW organizer, pioneered the collaboration of labor with scientists and environmentalists. Under his leadership, the OCAW organized a conference on "Hazards in the Industrial Environment" and made links with government activists. George Taylor, an AFL-CIO economist, worked with government officials on health related commissions and task forces and issued a report entitled "Protecting Eighty Million American Workers", or the "Frye Report", which urged for the growth of the Division of Occupational Health. Sheehan, a legislative lobbyist for the Steelworkers, served as a representative for organized labor on top level task forces. In order to gain the government's attention, to workplace safety and health, the labor activists had to first lobby their own unions as the labor movement was generally indifferent to the subject. When the activists gained the support of their own unions: OCAW and USWA, the AFL-CIO joined in the reformation. Environmental and public interest lobbyists helped persuade wavering senators and representatives to support the OSH act. News articles by reformers such as Ralph Nader also helped make safety a prioritized topic. Although many companies fought against safety reform, a few corporate leaders such as Henry Ford of Ford Motor Company and Sol Linowitz of Xerox Corporation advised corporate executives to accept the values of social justice were changing.
Workplace reform became part of the White House's policy agenda as President Lyndon Johnson was looking for "quality of life" issues which he hoped would benefit him during the re-election process. The Bureau of Budget pressed the Department of Labor to create a strong occupational safety and health program which would be included in the president's 1968 program for labor. The administration introduced a bill that extended federal regulation to most of the labor force. The Secretary of Labor told Congress that the bill was a victory for a new view of politics in which social values took precedence over economic values.
When President Nixon was elected president, many feared that it would be a step back in the fight for occupational safety reform. Although it was more sympathetic to employer interests, the Nixon administration never considered abandoning the idea of a federal regulatory program. Nixon's advisors warned him that the idea of workplace reform was gaining support by many legislators and was becoming widely publicized due to the work of the labor activists. A "blue collar strategy" was set up in pursuit of working class votes and Nixon symbolized his concerns for the "silent majority" by signing the OSH act on December 29, 1970.
Due to the hard work of Union activists who believed that employees deserve proper safety and health, the OSH act was passed by Congress, protecting America's workers against industrial accidents and occupational diseases. The successful effort of the workplace reform pioneers, Tony Mazzocchi, John Sheehan, and George Taylor, is proof of what can be accomplished when people truly believe in their cause.
Nader, Ralph, "The Violence of Omission," Nation Magazine, February 10, 1969, pages 166-168
Noble, Charles, Liberalism at Work - the Rise and Fall of OSHA, Temple University Press, 1986, pages 39-98