April 28 is commemorated worldwide as Workers Memorial Day – a day to remember all those who have died of occupational injuries while working to provide the goods and services we enjoy. As in past years, leaders of American labor unions marked the occasion with a ceremony in remembrance of those who have given their lives on the job. The AFL-CIO also released Death on the Job, a report reminding us that despite significant advances, each day an average of 12 US workers die in traumatic workplace accidents or injuries. Industries like agriculture, construction, mining, and transportation are still dangerous fields of work. 40 years after the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration there is evidently more work to be done.
But at a time when many are questioning the value of government, it is worth looking back at what has been achieved in the four decades since passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Workplace fatalities in the early 1970s hovered around 14,000 per year in a workforce below 80 million; by 2009 the workforce had nearly doubled in size but the number of fatalities fell to 4340. Not all of this can be attributed to OSHA, of course, but OSHA was essential in setting standards that helped reduce common workplace accidents.
Probably more important have been OSHA’s standards reducing worker exposure to long-term environmental hazards like asbestos. When inhaled, airborne asbestos particles embed themselves in lung tissue, causing scarring and chronic breathing problems; asbestos also increases the risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma. But asbestos was valued for its flame-retardant properties and was in widespread industrial and construction use in the 1950s and 1960s.
One of OSHA’s earliest standards was designed to limit worker exposure to airborne asbestos. The scarring and other damage done to the lungs by asbestos exposure is cumulative, so the symptoms may take years or even decades to manifest; those who inhaled the fibers in the 50s and 60s are still falling ill today. But OSHA standards made sure that these chronic illnesses and early deaths were not visited on yet another generation of American workers.
The dangers of asbestos exposure were not unknown before OSHA, but for business, competitive pressures made them unattractive to investigate and difficult to act upon. Any corporation that spurned the cheapest way of fabricating brake pads and fireproof building materials would pay an economic penalty, with less fastidious firms moving in on their markets. If our free enterprise economy is to serve the common good, we need institutions like OSHA to set the boundaries of acceptable competition – so that business leaders can follow their best impulses, and so that the costs of economic progress are not always pushed onto the ‘least of these.’