Coronavirus Shows Us Why Occupational Health and Safety Is Life or Death for Workers

The power of organized labor won the Occupational Safety and Health Administration 49 years ago today. That victory has saved thousands of lives in workplaces across the country — but we need to think even bigger than regulatory reforms now.

Family members of miners killed in mining disasters in West Virginia in 2016 and in Alabama in 2001 during a Congressional forum on mine safety sponsored by US House of Representatives Democrats February 13, 2006 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla / Getty

It took a global pandemic to put occupational health and safety back on the center stage of American politics. It has become personal for many, as millions of workers agonize daily over the choice between making a living or staying healthy. It’s more than a bread-and-butter issue — it’s life or death.

Right now, both unionized and nonunion workers are fighting for protective equipment, hazard pay, paid sick leave, and other measures. However, most unions and federal agencies are not adequately prepared to deal with a workplace safety dilemma of this scale.

Every day there are reports of nurses, doctors, and EMS drivers treating patients without N95 masks to protect themselves — already dozens or perhaps even hundreds of health care workers have died from coronavirus. Even American public transit workers have fallen ill on-the-job, with nearly a hundred having died from COVID-19 so far.

This is the perfect moment to look back at the formation, achievements, and limitations of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), created forty-nine years ago today on April 28, 1971. In many ways the movement for occupational safety and health legislation represents the type of worker politics that should be replicated today. It was groundbreaking, coalitional, and applied to all workers — not just unionized ones. In an era of Cold War politics which tried to reduce the scope of the labor movement to pay raises and pensions, it galvanized workers around non-economistic demands.

However, OSHA has failed to live up to the once bold expectations of its champions. The problems it was meant to ameliorate have not gone away, and the agency’s power and ambition has been gutted in recent years. The severe limitations of occupational safety and health measures in the United States are closely tied to the exceptional weakness of our social welfare state and low level of working-class organization. As long as control over the organization of production and investment remains in the hands of capital, the health and safety of workers will always be subordinate to the needs of profit maximization despite whatever regulations are on the book.

For OSHA to fulfill its potential today, it’s more than a matter of increasing the agency’s resources. In the here and now, we of course must fight for OSHA to survive. But to achieve lasting workplace safety gains we must build the traditional features of advanced social democracy: high union density, political vehicles that represent workers as a class, and greater democratic control over production and investment.

The political will for occupational safety and health needs to become a priority again today for unions and progressive forces, and the pandemic provides no better impetus for this to happen. This is also an opportunity to reframe how we think about this problem, moving beyond the technical considerations of staffing and funding. More broadly, occupational safety and health is about greater working-class power to determine the conditions of our daily lives.

What the American Job Site Was Like Before OSHA

Before OSHA, legislation protecting the safety of workers was woefully inadequate and dominated by the perspective of employers. This was the era documented in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, his groundbreaking book on the brutal working conditions in meatpacking plants which shocked the nation. The first wave of workplace reform came during the Progressive Era and was initiated by companies who saw it as a good way to avoid unionization. Worker compensation programs — preferred by employers because it regularized the costs of accidents — were the products of these early reform efforts. Worker compensation also took conflict away from the shop floor and placed it in bureaucracies. Between 1913–1920, all but eight states passed workers’ compensation laws.

Early safety standards were set by institutions under the control of corporate-dominated trade associations that organized and financed them. The United States of America Standards Institute (USASI) was the most important of these private standard-setting organizations. In the 1920s USASI saw an influx of trade and industrial organizations, and would remain under their grip from then on.

Though claiming to represent a wide range of interests, it was dominated by the business interests that created and funded it. In the late 1960s, the renamed American National Standards Institute only allowed six trade unions to participate in committee deliberations, compared to 160 trade associations.

Instead of a focusing on prevention and real worker education on occupational hazards, most companies resorted to propaganda that blamed worker carelessness for accidents.

The push for real occupational safety and health legislation came from worker organizing, not the initiative of Congress. Often the institutional structures of the labor movement lagged far behind rank-and-file workers. Throughout the 1960’s, a wave of combative wildcat strikes over dangerous workplace conditions shook heavy industry. During this period, the business cycle and use of technology were the greatest factors determining the quality of workplace safety. The combination of increased production for the Vietnam War and automation greatly increased the rate of worker deaths and injuries.

Coal miners were perhaps the poster children for the struggle over occupational safety and health during this time. At the 1968 United Mine Workers Association (UMWA) convention, delegates submitted eighteen separate resolutions concerning black lung — a disease that had all but been eradicated in most of the developed world at the time but was still ravaging the bodies of American miners. This fact coupled with the founding of the Black Lung Association (BLA) in early 1969 signaled a heightened awareness around this issue. BLA organizing meetings saw massive turnout and the issue deeply touched coal mining communities.

In February 1969, coal miners launched the first national wildcat strike over workplace health and safety. Their central demand was full recognition of black lung as an occupational disease and compensation to reflect that. This bold action shocked Congress into passing the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, which dramatically expanded federal oversight of coal mining safety. The new focus on workplace safety was reflected in the UMWA’s internal politics. When Josh Yablonski challenged Tony Boyle for leadership of the union, a detailed plan for improving health and safety was key to his platform.

As the rank and file fought back, the gears of the AFL-CIO officialdom were moving, however slowly. Perhaps the best example of a union leader able to move both the rank and file and bureaucracy of the labor movement was Tony Mazzocchi. As an official of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) Mazzocchi had intimate knowledge of the new hazards being introduced into the workplace by the burgeoning petrochemical industry.

Mazzocchi’s experience revealed that workers had no real legal guides for dealing with workplace hazards. Mazzocchi recounts, “I said, ‘Yea, there must be something’ — and I started calling around. I couldn’t find out anything. Gee, there’s no law. And it starts to dawn on me that there’s a pattern to this stuff. People have problems and there’s no place to turn.”

Mazzocchi always understood the need to cultivate a base before moving an expansive program inside the labor movement. OCAW District 8 was his base, and at the 1967 OCAW convention he carefully orchestrated the passing of a resolution mandating the building of community support for an occupational safety act. His remarks were prefaced by a rousing speech from Ralph Nader imploring the labor movement to fight for the community well-being in order to “survive as a creative force instead of a defensive force.” The resolution passed, and gave Mazzocchi freedom to build alliances and educational programs around occupational health.

From there, he embarked on a vigorous tour around the country with scientists and doctors talking to workers about workplace safety and health. The idea was to gather evidence that would go towards winning a new occupational health bill. Mazzocchi brilliantly reframed the issue to more easily unite with a broader array of forces.

Most environmentalists at the time had a big blind spot when it came to workers and the workplace. For Mazzocchi, it was everything. Pollution started in the workplace, and the only way to protect the public from pollution was by having workplace controls on toxic substances. Armed with this new perspective, his tour around the country built a mass base for workplace safety — it wasn’t just a labor issue but an environmental one. Through giving and hearing powerful testimonials on corporations’ complete disregard for their lives, workers began to see themselves as part of a broader movement. It was simple, but powerful and effective.

Other figures from labor teamed up with Mazzocchi to help move the gears of the labor bureaucracy. George Taylor, staff economist in the AFL-CIO research department, worked with mid-level bureaucrats in the government and labor movement. John J. Sheehan, a United Steelworkers (USW) lobbyist, was in charge of lobbying Capitol Hill. In 1965, Taylor headed the task force that produced the “Frye Report,” which proposed major changes to the Division of Occupational Health. Though rejected by the Surgeon General, it brought the issue to the attention of the AFL-CIO.

OCAW and USW were used as anchors to influence the broader AFL-CIO. In 1968, the Steelworkers held a conference in Pittsburgh on air quality control and encouraged its members to become active in the environmental movement. They began to push worker health and safety in bargaining, which was a break with the traditional economistic focus of most large industrial unions. USW president Iorwith Abel made sure that busloads of workers were brought to Capitol Hill to lobby for legislation.

Broader changes in the AFL-CIO structure also opened up opportunities for occupational safety and health advocates. The federation gave formal support to health and safety efforts but did not commit many resources to it. But the departure of the United Autoworkers from the AFL-CIO in 1968 made the Steelworkers the most powerful union within it. USW president Abel had control of the Industrial Union Department, which coordinated the political activity of unions in mass production industries. He used this body to commit actual resources to lobbying efforts for federal legislation. This example demonstrates the need for progressive labor activists to intelligently use the institutional structures of the labor movement for our benefit.

Outside the labor movement, public interest groups and environmental organizations helped make the case that workplace reform was in the general public’s interest, not just a narrow union issue. These allies and the framing they used were intelligently cultivated by Tony Mazzocchi. In 1968, a coalition of more than a hundred labor, consumer, religious, and environmental groups formed to lobby for the Occupational Safety and Health Act.

Beyond political support, the technical expertise of these other movements was used for the legislative process. As Steelworkers official John Sheehan recounts, “Without the Clean Air Act, there would be no OSHA. All the legislative constructs, terminology, and technical expertise required for the OSHA legislation we learned from our work on the Clean Air Act.”

The movement pressure converged with interests emanating from within the White House. From 1966 on, the Lyndon Johnson administration was looking for a post–civil rights issue that did not come with a hefty price tag. The team around Johnson developed new “quality of life” issues to center in the 1968 reelection campaign. Occupational safety and health were one of them. During his Manpower Message in January 1968, John proposed the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act.

Unsurprisingly, the corporate world fought this legislation every step of the way. They argued that safety improvements should be made on a voluntary basis, rather than having the Department of Labor setting standards. However, corporations were divided among themselves on this question and did not speak as a class. Unlike OSHA advocates, they failed to present a positive vision of how their priorities were in the general society’s best interest.

The multifaceted movement building efforts around occupational safety and health meant the issue was already on the agenda when Richard Nixon took office. His presidential campaign developed a concerted strategy to win over blue-collar workers, and going along with this legislation was something concrete he could deliver fast. On December 29, 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Act was signed into the law, with OSHA being formed in April of the following year.

Workers Got OSHA Passed — And Then They Used It to Go Even Further

Once OSHA was a reality, it opened a new frontier of rights and issues for workers to organize around. It called on employers to “furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards.” Employers were obligated to maintain records of worker injuries and illnesses. Civil and criminal penalties for any violations of the law were set.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) was created to set standards and gather a list of toxic substances. Workers won the right to participate in standards setting, workplace inspection, and hazard monitoring. In cases of imminent danger, unions could call for immediate inspections.

However, good union organizers know that contracts are just pieces of paper if workers are not prepared to organize for its enforcement. Mazzocchi, more than any other union leader, understood that the same concept applied to the OSH Act. Knowing that companies would only do the bare minimum to comply with OSHA, Mazzocchi stated, “You have to make every worker a safety chairman in the plant … in the area of health and the environment of the plant, every man’s got to be a shop steward, every woman.”

Mazzocchi’s union, OCAW, went before the OSHA review board more than any other union. In 1970, Mazzochi teamed up with former SDS activist Steven Wodka to work on beryllium hazards at the Kawecki Berylco factory in Hazelton, PA. Workers conducted a six-month strike at the end of 1972 with transformative demands covering health and safety. They wanted the union to have complete control of the facility’s industrial hygiene program, and automatic retirement at full pay plus medical benefits when a worker had berylliosis. Even more exceptional was the demand to keep the surrounding community safe by ending the burning of beryllium-contaminated scrap at the landfill.

Again using his home base as a launching pad, Mazzocchi worked to create a union-sponsored occupational health and safety course that would be piloted in his own local. All this activity succeeded in making health and safety the primary issue in OCAW’s 1972 contract negotiations. Their demands set a new standard for how to bargain over workplace safety. The union wanted inspections done by independent consultants jointly approved by labor and management, union-approved doctors for examinations, access to all morbidity and mortality records, and paid time off for workers to conduct union health and safety business.

Most of the oil industry agreed to these demands except Shell Oil, setting the stage for an epic strike that saw the first large-scale alliance between labor and environmentalists.

“Archie Bunker Meets the Sierra Club”

On January 21, 1973 over 4,000 Shell OCAW members went on strike and launched a nationwide boycott. Mazzocchi knew they couldn’t win a traditional strike because the company was already heavily automated by this point. He thought their only hope was massive public pressure involving a broad coalition.

Mazzocchi approached the organization Environmental Action (EA) for support, utilizing the skills of privileged environmental activists like EA director Cathy Lerza. They formed the Committee to Support the Shell Strike. As Lerza wrote, “The strike is important to forward-looking environmentalists because it is the realization of a long-dreamed-of alliance: workers and environmentalists working together to reach a common goal.”

The oil industry even sent a representative to a Sierra Club board meeting to stop them from backing the strike, but they held firm. A newspaper headline captured the unexpected partnership taking place: “Archie Bunker Meets the Sierra Club.” The strike officially ended on June 1, 1973 and the company gave in to some — not all — of the demands. But more importantly, the strike provided a model of how to organize for health and safety beyond OSHA.

It was clear that the creation of OSHA had an effect on health and safety efforts elsewhere in the labor movement as well. Union contracts in certain industries throughout the 1970s reflected this sentiment. The United Rubber Workers 1970 contract established a five-year, company-financed research program on health and safety. The UAW signed the first union contract with a clause that specified workers’ rights to information and obliged employers to union safety representatives at company expense. The Steelworkers, long advocates of workplace safety legislation, negotiated company-paid joint committees and union inspection rights in 1971.

By the 1980s, fifty unions had in-house health and safety efforts. Coalitions on Occupational Safety and Health (COSHs) formed in the 1970s to educate workers about health hazards and forge links between rank-and-filers and health professionals. Many cities still have active COSHs to this day. In 1980 these coalitions coordinated to defeat a congressional amendment to the OSH Act that would’ve exempted 90 percent of workplaces from OSHA inspections.

Most unions, however, did not take full advantage of the opportunities OSHA opened up and focused on traditional collective bargaining. This is partly understandable, given the economic downturn that accelerated in the period right after OSHA was passed. It is difficult to shift focus away from economic demands right as the latter are becoming more of a pressing issue for members. But failure to build broad coalitions in the way Mazzocchi did left the labor movement even more vulnerable to isolation and attack.

The years immediately following the establishment of OSHA demonstrate that the potential of the agency can only be realized with an organizational commitment from the labor movement. Unions need to not only aggressively use OSHA, but also reinforce its logic by making health and safety an issue in bargaining.

But aside from the actions of the labor movement, there are other political dynamics that have severely limited the effectiveness of OSHA in eliminating hazards in the workplace.

Capital Strikes Back — And Workers’ Safety Plummets

OSHA is a product of the United States’ extremely limited welfare state. The agency was set up as an attempt to respond to the dangerous ways that employers organized production, instead of an effort from the state to intervene in the productive process from the start. This crucial distinction can partly explain OSHA’s inability to dramatically improve workplace safety and its decline over the last four decades. As we defend OSHA today, we need to fight for a better framework tomorrow.

For one, the labor movement and the regulatory state were unprepared for the organized corporate backlash to workplace safety efforts. Big business started speaking and acting as a cohesive class, a project which took many different forms. The Business Roundtable was formed in 1972 to coordinate efforts across industry. Trade associations moved to Washington and the number of corporate PACs grew exponentially. The Chamber of Commerce founded the National Chamber Litigation Center in 1977 to challenge health and safety regulation, organizing a “Stop OSHA” campaign.

The employers also learned they needed to identify their interests as being the same as the general society’s interest in jobs, economic growth, and capital investment. They supported regulation, but only if it was “economically sound” and did not hurt the overall economic climate. This framing was hard to counter, for this logic was reproduced even by unions that viewed their jobs and standard of living as dependent on private investment.

The Chamber of Commerce couched their opposition in pseudo-populist rhetoric when they declared, “All of us pay for OSHA’s failures. We pay as consumers when the goods we buy cost more in the marketplace. We pay as taxpayers with more and more whittled from our paychecks to fund an agency that is heavy on expenses but lean on results.”

Employers prioritized a few major changes to workplace safety regulation. They wanted general hazard reduction goals instead of specified changes. Instead of penalties, OSHA inspectors should “consult” and “cooperate” with firms. Lastly, workers should not participate in the process because unions would weaponize health and safety in bargaining.

Another fatal flaw was that the OSH Act left implementation up to the executive branch rather than workers and unions. This made it subject to partisan conflict and dependent on the balance of political forces. The 1973–1975 recession allowed conservative ideas about the negative impact of government on the economy to be revived. This was bad news for OSHA.

President Ford issued an Executive Order requiring agencies to submit Inflation Impact Statements to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). This was significant because there were no provisions in the original OSH Act that required OSHA to take costs into account. These inflation reviews were insisted upon despite economic studies showing that social regulation was not stifling free enterprise in any significant way.

The changes by Ford had an immediate impact on OSHA’s ability to set standards. From 1975 until the end of the Ford administration, OSHA tried to move a package of thirteen health standards proposals, including rules for arsenic, lead, and coke-oven emissions. But the White House forced them to use very limited resources to justify each requirement, and only the coke-oven emission rules were passed.

Ronald Reagan made deregulation a central part of his conservative revolution, creating an even more elaborate review process that was harder to satisfy. During his administration, inspections were discouraged by routinely referring worker complaints back to employers unless workers established in writing that “violations threatening physical or an imminent danger” existed. The proportion of OSHA inspections in response to employee-based initiatives dropped from a peak of 32.3 percent under Carter to 14.5 percent under Reagan.

For True Workers’ Safety, We Need Social Democracy in America

The very framework that OSHA exists within has made it vulnerable to erosion. The fate of occupational health and safety in the United States is intimately tied to our ability to build a vibrant social-democratic politics. Countries with strong social-democratic or labor parties, tripartite agreements on workplace safety, and high union density have fared much better in regulating the workplace. Sweden’s long-standing model should serve as a horizon we can aspire to.

In Sweden, occupational safety and health standards are negotiated between the major union federations (LO and TCO), the Worker Protection Board (ASV), and the employer organization (SAF). The powers of the Worker Protection Board are substantial, and their standards are stricter than those of OSHA. Legal challenges to ASV standards are not even permitted.

The country’s very high union density (70 percent today) and powerful social-democratic party have achieved some of the strongest set of worker safety rights on record. The Joint Regulation Act (1976) and Work Environment Act (1977) granted workers the right to participate in the governance of firms and determination of working conditions. Swedish workers possess the right to know about hazards, supervise the operation of in-plant services, and refuse to do hazardous work. A 1979 agreement gave worker representatives a permanent majority on the in-plant health and safety committees.

Workers cannot achieve substantial workplace safety reform with weak unions and no political vehicles to act as a class. Stronger state intervention in the organization of production to counter the employers’ profit motive gets at the root causes of workplace hazards. If by social democracy we mean greater worker power at all levels of society, building on this growing tendency within US politics goes in tandem with a strong occupational safety and health movement.

Workers’ Safety in America Was Already a Crisis Before the Pandemic

Donald Trump’s first term in office has been nothing short of an attack on OSHA. According to the National Employment Law Project program director Debbie Berkowitz, “We’re seeing huge red flags in the continued drop in enforcement and staffing at OSHA, while the number of workplace fatality investigations is at a decade high. That’s a clear indication that workplace deaths are on the rise.”

The number of inspectors has fallen to the lowest in the agency’s existence, leaving it woefully unprepared for the COVID-19 crisis. Former OSHA chief David Michaels has lamented, “They’re simply missing in action in handling this epidemic. OSHA has been invisible in this whole response.” Now Trump has told most employers in the United States that they will not be required to record and report coronavirus cases among their workers.

This stance falls in line with the administration’s general anti-regulatory attitude. Nothing better demonstrates this than his Executive Order in January of 2017 requiring federal agencies to cut two regulations for every new one proposed. Trump has also overturned the Obama-era Fair and Safe Workplaces Executive Order, which required federal contractors to comply with health and safety rules in order to be eligible for new federal contracts.

The most dangerous occupations are being made even worse under Trump’s OSHA. In order to save the industry some $11 million a year, the Trump administration canceled a requirement for training for construction and shipyard workers to avoid exposure to beryllium, a known carcinogen. Trump’s mine safety chief, David Zatezalo, is a former coal executive who as recently as 2011 was cited by the agency he now leads for a pattern of safety violations.

A rule proposed in 2018 would relieve companies with 250 workers or more from a previous OSHA obligation to submit detailed injury and illness data. These reports were important tools for unions, as IBEW safety department director David Mullen explained: “I use accident reports to help prevent the next one, so the more information we see, the more we can do to keep our members safe.”

These attacks not only weaken OSHA’s past gains, but also make it unable to deal with new workplace safety challenges. For example, OSHA hasn’t adopted a federal heat stress standard, though climate change is making this an urgent issue for workers. Today, even before the pandemic, health care workers get more injuries requiring time away from work than any other kind of worker. Patient-handling equipment such as lifts and slide boards can significantly reduce the strain, but OSHA has not developed a standard for this. The rising prevalence of subcontracted work presents a host of new challenges to the enforcement of work safety.

The coronavirus pandemic has retaught us the vital lesson that our health and safety shouldn’t end when we enter the workplace. The need for OSHA is just as strong today — 5,250 workers died on the job in 2018. And with COVID-19, job sites just became even deadlier.

We need to fight to dramatically expand the resources and capabilities of OSHA. Unions should make health and safety a major issue on the shop floor and at the bargaining table. More broadly, our horizons should be set on building the political vehicles for working-class people to exert more power at all levels of society.