This Day in Labor History: April 28, 1971


You can read more about the Auchter years here,.

Given the time that an agency needs to establish itself, create programs, and conduct research, in many ways OSHA was just reaching its stride when Reagan slashed the budgets. For the International Woodworkers of America, the decline in OSHA funding was devastating. The IWA was a bit slower than OCAW in engaging OSHA seriously. The election of a new generation of union leadership in 1976 catapulted the union into one of most aggressive for using OSHA as a tool to empower workers on the shop floor. The IWA trained workers in OSHA policies, then sent them back to the shop floor to demand problems be cleaned up. It even suggested to OSHA that the agency send a staffer to work directly with the IWA, which was denied because it was outside the purview of the agency, but also got the attention of the agency as a union serious about workplace health. Basil Whiting, Deputy Assistant Secretary of OSHA, told the IWA Convention in 1977, “You have been one of the few unions in the United States that has grasped the nettle here, has begun to move forward in terms of developing your own internal capacity to take action in relation to the serious problems of health and safety that are killing off your members.”

The Reagan budgets, combined with the decline in timber employment due to outside factors and thus a smaller membership, put a stop to these workplace safety programs. NIOSH grants to fund the effects of ash from the Mt. St. Helens explosion were ended, as was a federal grant to the University of Washington to study chemical exposure among plywood mill workers. Other plans to develop compensation programs for physical aliments suffered by loggers were shelved entirely.

Despite Reagan’s defunding of OSHA programs, overall workplace safety has improved significantly in the United States since 1971. A good bit of this has to do with industry outsourcing industrial risk to Latin America and Asia, but there have also been real changes in workplace culture. In 1970, there were 18 workplace fatalities for every 100,000 workers. By 2006, that fell to 4.1 deaths per 100,000 workers. Occupational injury and illness rates fell by 40% over the same years.

As we have seen in recent weeks, OSHA’s ability to protect workers has severe limitations due to underfunding. In 1980, OSHA employed 2950 people. In 2006, it employed only 2092 people, despite the near doubling of the size of the workforce. The explosion at the West Fertilizer plant in Texas on April 17 that killed at least 14 people demonstrated the agency’s very real limitations. There are so few OSHA inspectors that it would take 129 years to inspect every workplace in the country at current staffing levels. Punishment for OSHA violations are often weak and employers have minimum fear that of any real punishment. 

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