Seven Decades of Safety: The Birth of OSHA

Oct. 1, 2008
The end of the 1960s was a rare mixture of rage and hope in the United States. While the Vietnam War continued to drag on and divide the nation, Lyndon

The end of the 1960s was a rare mixture of rage and hope in the United States. While the Vietnam War continued to drag on and divide the nation, Lyndon Johnson's idealistic Great Society programs did battle with poverty, racism and crime. It was an era when Big Government was willing to flex its muscle to address serious problems.

In January 1968, President Johnson proposed that Congress enact comprehensive workplace safety legislation covering 75 million workers. Two days later, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1968 was introduced in both chambers of Congress.

Changes in the safety legislation were soon forthcoming. Led by Rep. William Hathaway (D-Maine), a revised bill softened the requirement for a safe and healthful workplace to require employers to “assure so far as possible, every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions.” The revised bill was intended to win over skeptics on both sides of the aisle, but with an abundance of more pressing issues to consider, it died.

The mechanism for creating safety and health standards would become one of the key points of contention as the legislative battle continued. The Nixon administration used an advisory task force to come up with its own version of a job safety bill, which proposed that safety standards be developed by an Occupational Safety and Health Board.

Meanwhile, three Democratic OSHA bills were reconciled to H.R. 16875 by Rep. Dominick Daniels (D-N.J.), the chairman of the House Select Subcommittee on Labor. This bill again sought to put standards-setting power in the hands of the Secretary of Labor.

By November 1970, both Houses had passed OSHA bills, but the two versions still differed. In the end, a conference committee ironed out the differences, adopting a bill that largely followed the more liberal Senate version. In December, the OSH Act was passed and went into effect April 28, 1971.

OSHA in Action

By May 1971, OSHA inspectors had begun enforcing the new law, using the Act's general duty clause because standards had not yet been adopted.

Milan Racic, an industrial hygienist working for the city of Milwaukee, joined the fledgling agency in September 1972. He was an idealist in those days, he recalls, who found the chance to have a steady job, be fairly compensated and do something to help people kept him on “a constant high.”

In particular, Racic said OSHA raised the awareness of workers about job hazards and changed the attitude that workers assumed the risk of injury in taking a job.

Bill Brogan joined OSHA headquarters soon after the agency was formed. He said it is ironic that OSHA quickly gained a reputation for citing nitpicking standards. Industry had argued before the OSH Act was passed that federal standards were not needed because businesses adhered to existing consensus standards. Congress then turned around and said OSHA could adopt those standards for 2 years.

“You remember all the howls about split-front toilet seats,” Brogan said of the ANSI standard first adopted in the 1920s. One of his first jobs at the agency was to answer mail for Assistant Secretary George Guenther. A letter came in complaining of an inspection, in which the toilet seat standard was cited. The letter was nailed to half a toilet seat.

“‘I now have half a split toilet seat,’” Brogan recalls the letter saying. “‘Use the other half for your half-assed inspectors.’”

Decade of the 70's


1970: Four students killed by Ohio Army National Guard at Kent State University

1974: President Richard Nixon resigns because of Watergate scandal

1976: Bicentennial celebrations mark 200th anniversary of U.S. independence

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