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.’

Comments

ed gleason | 4/29/2011 - 3:53pm
Michael. Exactly where does the altruistic virtues lie/reside in publicly owned companies.. in the hearts of the  CEO, Employees, Stockholders, customers? Where in their Co. business plan are these altruistic notions mentioned? Is this not another example of the mystical market forces so often posited by conservatives? Were the Gulf clean-up volunteers organized by for -profits Cos.?.. name some.. don't name  BP..  it   'was under extortion pressure by Obama ' according to TP reps.
ed gleason | 4/29/2011 - 1:06pm
Of course it is very important to recognize that government that works for the common good, especially after two years of hearing GOP/TP and their government bashing. The last few days I heard Southern Governors, Mayors, Town officials in tornado wrecked cites praising first responders, FEMA, National Guard and US military, Fed Gov. funding,  and all kinds of government help. No mentions of private industry help though.. [Until government money flows in, they see no bottom line reason to expend resources for the common good.]
Stanley Kopacz | 4/30/2011 - 10:49am
Whatever one's ideology, a sense of community is what is most important.  It's not a matter of government doing things for us, but of reflecting a common will to maintain a system that individuals and communities can function in & to give us respite from a life of desperatation and Darwinism.  Government without a sense of community and mutual belonging in the populace can only function negatively.  Now, many parts of it serve special interests more than public interests.  I think the SEC and other regulatory agencies are too much in bed with those they are supposed to regulate.  It was obvious the government wasn't doing its job before BP contaminated the Gulf.

The military does an effective job (when it's doing what it is suposed to be doing) because there are military cultures dating from the inception of our country.  A sense of community and solidarity is infused along with basic training.  I was somewhat upset by that  recruiting promotion "An Army of One".  Could only have been thought of by clueless, hotshot advertisers. What Hollywood baloney.  It's always been "An Army of Us". 
Vince Killoran | 4/30/2011 - 8:08pm
Actually, government works better than private industry in many things-e.g., pilot programs for businesses to administer Social Security and Medicare have failed miserably.

FEMA performed miserably under Brownie & his Boss.
ed gleason | 4/30/2011 - 2:15pm
At last Walter M. gives us the summation of the conservative Gospel according to the GOP ' Although they have no profit and loss motivations to keep them effective as private companies do, perhaps they do have another, adequate motivation: if troops don't perform well, they die.'
 Anyone who has slightest acquaintance with the Coast Guard esprit de corps knows that saving lives is their mission.

Anonymous | 4/29/2011 - 11:59pm

''In the case of Katrina, almost ANYONE was a hero when compared with the shameful inadequacy of the occupany of the White House and his  minions at that time''
 
Bush devoted a whole chapter to Katrina in his recent book.  I think anyone who disparages him on Katrina should read it first and deal with what he says.  He accepts blame for some of the slowness to respond but a lot of his blunders were pr in nature and less due to the inadequacy of anyone responding to the disaster.  There were people there immediately helping those who did not evacuate.  Governor Blanco requested an emergency declaration allowing Louisiana to use federal resources to pay for and support her state’s disaster-response preparations. Only once in recent history—before Hurricane Floyd in 1999—had a president issued an emergency declaration before a storm made landfall.  Bush signed this declaration for Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama two days before the storm hit.
 
There were less problems in Mississippi than Louisiana which was also hit extremely hard but cooperated more readily with the federal government.  The mayor of New Orleans only issued a mandatory evacuation of the city the day before the hurricane hit because Bush insisted on it.  But it was too late and inadequately enforced.
 
People go after Mike Brown and maybe he was overwhelmed by what happened but only the year before, FEMA under Brown handled four hurricanes in one season in Florida with quick response.  For Katrina, Fema had prepositioned more than 3.7 million liters of water, 4.6 million pounds of ice, 1.86 million meals ready to eat, and 33 medical teams. This was the largest prepositioning of relief supplies in FEMA’s history.  Bush tried to get Governor Blanco to let the federal government take charge of security in New Orleans but she refused.  It wasn't till a week later that they figured out a way around her resistance.
MARILYN DUNPHY MS | 4/29/2011 - 9:46pm
Walter, I assume that you are referring to the Brooks study and the report published in 2006.  If one looks behind the data somewhat a number of his conclusions do not seem to hold.  I'm attaching a link to a Boston Globe article that highlighted some of the issues.

http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2006/12/10/who_gives/
JIM MCCREA | 4/29/2011 - 7:02pm
In the case of Katrina, almost ANYONE was a hero when compared with the shameful inadequacy of the occupany of the White House and his  minions at that time.
Anonymous | 4/29/2011 - 2:10pm
RE:  Ed's comment (#1), one can argue that the lack of private industry participation exemplifies what happens when government gets tries to help: people become dependent on it and altruistic acts are stifled.  When government "dropped the ball" in the Gulf, the place was swarming with citizen volunteers.