Four Decades of OSHA: A Timeline

April 27, 2011
On April 28, OSHA reaches a 40-year milestone. Since it was founded 4 decades ago, the agency established a range of safety and health regulations to protect the American work force; reduced workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities; and initiated a national conversation about occupational health and safety.

“April 28, 2011 marks the 40th anniversary of OSHA’s first day on the job – a job that has delivered remarkable progress for our nation,” said OSHA Administrator Dr. David Michaels. “Today, workplaces in America are far safer than 40 years ago. Our progress gives us hope and confidence that OSHA will continue to make a lasting difference in the lives of our nation’s 130 million workers and their families.”

When considering some of the most significant standards OSHA has introduced in its 40-year history, Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO’s director of safety and health, singled out the agency’s asbestos, lead and benzene standards. These standards, she said, addressed widespread hazards that were killing thousands of workers.

“By setting these standards, the agency brought a focus and attention to workplace safety and health and put obligations on employers to address those problems,” she told EHS Today. “Those standards not only had an impact on that particular hazard, they helped develop a whole capacity to deal with a variety of safety and health problems in the workplace.”

OSHA History Timeline

The following timeline includes some of OSHA’s most significant workplace health and safety milestones in the last 40 years:

Dec. 29, 1970 – The OSH Act Is Signed into Law: President Richard M. Nixon signed the bipartisan Williams-Steiger Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 in response to dangerous working conditions across the nation and as a culmination of decades of reform.

April 28, 1971 – OSHA Is Established: OSHA is officially established to ensure safe working conditions for American workers by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.

June 7, 1972 – OSHA Issues Its First Standard – Asbestos: OSHA issues a standard limiting workplace exposure to asbestos fibers to protect workers from lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma. Significant asbestos exposure is now rare in American workplaces.

Nov. 23, 1972 – Construction Safety Standards: OSHA issues standards to protect construction workers operating electric power transmission and distribution equipment, aerial lifts and helicopters.

Oct. 22, 1976 – Coke Oven Emissions Standard: Coke oven emissions in steel production facilities contain numerous chemicals and have been associated with the development of lung cancer in exposed workers. This standard requires implementation of engineering controls and resulted in significant decreases in exposures.

Nov. 14, 1978 –Lead Standard: Workplace lead exposures in general industry decrease significantly after OSHA issues a lead standard in 1978. Lead has long been recognized as a toxin that can cause damage to the kidney, nervous system and reproductive system. OSHA publishes a lead standard to protect workers in the construction industry in 1995.

Jan. 16, 1981 – Hearing Conservation Standard: This standard requires that workers exposed to noise levels above 85 decibels are provided with hearing protection. It also requires employers to perform hearing tests on workers to monitor how these protection measures are working.

July 2, 1982 – Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP): OSHA creates the VPP to recognize workplaces with exemplary safety and health management systems and encourage other employers to follow suit.

Dec. 3, 1984 – Bhopal Disaster: The catastrophic release of the toxic chemical methyl isocyanate at Union Carbide’s plant in Bhopal, India, kills at least 3,800 immediately, results in thousands of additional deaths and affects half a million people. The disaster sparks worldwide concern, prompts OSHA to inspect all U.S. facilities manufacturing or processing this chemical, and leads OSHA to increase inspections of chemical plants.

Sept. 11, 1987 – Benzene Standard: OSHA issues a revised standard to protect workers from benzene, a highly toxic chemical that causes leukemia.

Dec. 31, 1987 – Protecting Grain Workers: Following a series of devastating grain elevator explosions, OSHA issues the grain handling standard to protect 155,000 workers in the grain industry from the risk of fire and explosion from highly combustible grain dust. Explosions have since been reduced by over 40 percent, and the number of workers killed by explosions fell by 70 percent.

Dec. 6, 1991 – Bloodborne Pathogens Standard: OSHA protects 5.6 million workers exposed to the hazards of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B with this standard.

Jan. 14, 1993 – Confined Spaces Standard: OSHA issues a standard requiring safe procedures and permits for entry into confined spaces, including underground vaults, tanks, storage bins, manholes, pits, silos, process vessels, and pipelines. The standard prevents more than 50 deaths and more than 5,000 serious injuries annually for the 1.6 million workers who enter confined spaces.

Sept. 11, 2001 – OSHA Responds to the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks: OSHA sends staff to Ground Zero in New York City and the Pentagon to monitor worker exposures to hazards during cleanup and recovery operations and to fit test and distribute respirators.

March 23, 2005 – BP Refinery Explosion: An explosion and fire at the BP refinery in Texas City, Texas, kills 15 workers and injures more than 160 others. In response, OSHA issues the largest fines in its history and initiates increased inspections in oil refineries across the country.

Nov. 15, 2007 – Payment for Safety Equipment: OSHA confirms through a rule that employers must pay for most types of required PPE, such as earplugs, respirators and protective gloves.

Oct. 21, 2009 – Deadly Dust Explosions: In the wake of several deadly industrial combustible dust explosions – including the Feb. 7, 2008, explosion at the Imperial Sugar Refinery in Georgia that killed 14 and injured 30 others – OSHA initiates rulemaking to address the fire and explosion hazards of combustible dust.

June 3, 2010 – Injury and Illness Prevention Program Initiative: OSHA proposes an initiative to require employers to implement a systematic program to help them find the safety and health hazards in their workplace and fix them.

For a complete, interactive timeline of the agency’s 40-year history, visit

About the Author

Laura Walter

Laura Walter was formerly senior editor of EHS Today. She is a subject matter expert in EHS compliance and government issues and has covered a variety of topics relating to occupational safety and health. Her writing has earned awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), the Trade Association Business Publications International (TABPI) and APEX Awards for Publication Excellence. Her debut novel, Body of Stars (Dutton) was published in 2021.

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