Seven Decades of Safety: Reform and Reinvention

Oct. 1, 2008
The November 1994 congressional election marked a dramatic turning point in the political fortunes of OSHA. For years, powerful Democratic committee chairmen

The November 1994 congressional election marked a dramatic turning point in the political fortunes of OSHA. For years, powerful Democratic committee chairmen had sheltered OSHA from calls from conservative politicians in both parties to get OSHA off industry's back. This strategy, supported by organized labor, said the risks of opening the OSH Act to strengthen it outweighed the possible benefits. Republicans, though critical of the agency, saw little chance of significant change while Democrats controlled Congress.

In August 1991, Democrats sensed that the time was finally ripe for reform and introduced an AFL-CIO-crafted OSHA reform bill designed to strengthen workers' rights and stiffen criminal penalties. When President Clinton was elected in 1992, Democrats, now in control of the White House and Congress, were confident of the bill's passage. But business opposition to the bills was intense. Industry groups saw the provisions for labor-management safety committees as a power play by unions desperate to organize new plants and reverse the decline in union membership. In an aggressive lobbying effort, industry slowed down what once seemed a sure thing and eventually stopped the bill.


Joseph Dear came to Washington as OSHA administrator in 1993 “to reinvent [OSHA] and make it more effective” — quite a challenge during an era in which new technology gave rise to new, more subtle ailments.

Ergonomics and indoor air quality began competing with machine safety and construction hazards for OSHA's attention and resources. Criticism mounted that OSHA was losing its focus.

Dear laid the foundation for a new cooperative regulatory approach and opened the rulemaking process to stakeholders affected by proposed standards. Taking this openness a step farther, OSHA turned to negotiated rulemaking in 1995. The agency also created the Steel Erection Negotiated Rulemaking Advisory Committee and asked it to develop and write a standard agreeable to all parties.

OSHA Reform II

With their landmark Congressional victory, Republicans abruptly changed the style and substance of the OSHA reform effort. The Safety and Health Improvement and Regulatory Reform Act of 1995 sought to redirect OSHA funding from enforcement to consultation and training activities, allow third-party inspections and give employers the right to fix most violations rather than face immediate penalties. Congress also began a long debate about regulatory reform and, in March 1996, passed the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act (SBREFA).

Labor leaders said reform and reinvention have shifted the agency's focus from where it should be. “There has been more of an emphasis on the agency and how it should operate, than on safety and health problems facing workers,” observed Peg Seminario, director of safety and health, AFL-CIO, adding, “This decade in safety and health is one in which the country has failed to address the major safety and health problems for workers.”

Decade of the 90's


1991: American planes bomb Iraq

1991: Imperial Foods Fire, Hamlet, N.C.

1992: NAFTA signed

1995: Oklahoma City bombing

1998: Stakeholder meetings for ergo standard held

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