Although you might have to take OSHA-required training courses, you might not know how and why OSHA was founded. The United States didn’t always have worker safety regulations in place, and there were thousands of deaths and injuries due to the lack of safety guidelines. Below we will highlight some of the most significant events that spurred the founding of OSHA and made workplace-safety a national initiative.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
We can’t speak on the history of workplace safety without mentioning the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. In fact, even if you didn’t pay too much attention in history class, chances are you remember this workplace disaster from 1911. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire claimed the lives of 146 of the factory’s 500 employees and was ranked as the fourth deadliest industrial disasters in history, next to the burning of steamship PS General Slocum and 9/11.
Many of the shirtwaist factory workers, composed mostly of female immigrants aged 14 to 43, died from the fire, suffocation, and jumping to their deaths. The victims were trapped inside the factory because the doors leading to stairwells and exits were locked and the building had no fire escapes. Apparently, the managers had locked the doors to prevent theft of fabric scraps.
This disaster paved the way for the creation of legislation that called on factory owners to elevate workplace safety standards for their workers. Frances Perkins, who later became the first Secretary of Labor in 1934, investigated the Triangle Fire and helped the state of New York create protective legislation to prevent similar incidents.
Perkins created the Bureau of Labor Standards in 1934 that served as the first federal agency to cater to the safety needs of working men and women, which paved the way for a national workers-safety organization, OSHA.
World War I Factory Production
It wasn’t unheard of for workplace safety conditions to fall to the wayside during times of crisis and war. This was certainly the case during World War I when working conditions in factories deteriorated so much that the government had to step in and provide mandatory health and safety regulations.
The United States government got one step closer to establishing OSHA by creating a Working Conditions Service that lent resources to states to help them inspect factories and minimize workplace hazards.
The New Deal
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced the New Deal, a series of acts intended to remedy the ill effects of the Wall Street Crash in the 1930s. The New Deal created a number of laws that strengthened the ties between the federal government and state to promote workplace safety and health.
However, by the 1950s, the federal-state partnership could no longer handle the demands of America’s growing workforce and the increasing need for new legislation. More laws were enacted, although some industries still lacked coverage.
By the 1960s, 14,000 workers were killed yearly and over 2.2 million workers were jobless due to workplace injuries and illnesses. These staggering statistics prompted the government to sign and enact the OSH Act.
Signing of the OSH Act
With the workplace death and injury toll out of control in the United States, Congress created the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (the OSH Act). Signed by President Nixon on December 29, 1970, the act created OSHA “to assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the nation safe and healthful working conditions and to preserve our human resources.” OSHA was formally established on April 28, 1972.
Since its establishment, OSHA has worked hard to ensure that all employers in the United States provide a safe and healthful workplace for employees. In recent years, OSHA has responded to 200,000 requests for compliance assistance, and has conducted an average of 40,000 to 50,000 inspections annually.
The agency has also created a Severe Violator Enforcement Program that disciplines OSHA standards violators, and has strengthened initiatives for its Whistleblower Protection Program.
Learn more about OSHA’s history and mission by enrolling in our OSHA 10 or 30-hour courses for the Construction and General Industries. Sign up today!