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A Brief History of Occupational Health and Safety

Posted by EHS Insight Resources on October 17, 2019 at 2:50 PM

Today, employers know that occupational safety is a workplace hero. But once upon a time, that wasn’t the case.

Prior to 1970, the regulation of workplace health and safety was a very different landscape. Back then, it fell under the purview of the Department of Labor but did not have a central focus, which meant that workers were the ones to suffer the consequences.

How did workplace safety become what it is today? Here’s a brief history of occupational health and safety to better understand how we’ve achieved the safe workplaces we have.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act

In the United States, occupational health and safety truly begin in 1970, with the passing of the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Act.

The goal of this law was simple: to improve safety and guarantee safer working conditions for all workers, regardless of their job or industry. As such, the law addressed issues related to known health and safety hazards, such as unsanitary conditions, cold and heat stress, and environmental toxins.

The Act also established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to pass health and safety standards, as well as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to act as a research body on OSHA’s behalf under the umbrella of the Centers for Disease Control.

Establishment of OSHA and the First Standards

On April 28, 1971, OSHA was officially established as the federal body responsible for worker health and safety.

The first year of OSHA’s existence was a busy one, as the agency quickly began establishing safety standards and industry regulations. The first standards were issued five months after OSHA’s establishment.

These standards are the ones that all current standards are built on. They established baseline health and safety regulations for businesses to follow, guiding employer responsibilities and reporting protocols.

One year later, in 1972, OSHA established the OSHA Training Institute. The Institute is alive and well today, responsible for the training and education of state and federal compliance officers, private sector safety managers, state consultants, and non-OSHA personnel.

In those days, OSHA had 10 regional offices, 49 area offices, and two maritime offices in major cities across the country. These offices would begin OSHA’s ongoing work: educating employers on their safety responsibilities.

Improving Upon OSHA Standards

In the early days, when OSHA’s resources were limited and just being established, OSHA focused its enforcement with a “worst case first” approach. They emphasized the investigation of catastrophic workplace accidents and compliance in the most dangerous industries. The idea was to focus on workers who were most at risk first.

From there, OSHA has greatly expanded its scope and focus.

Federal OSHA remains a small agency. With their current state partners, they have a combined staff of 2,100 personnel to handle the health and safety issues of 130 million workers across all industries and every location in the country.

The issues addressed by OSHA have greatly expanded since their very first standard, which covered asbestos. In 1974, they passed their Fourteen Carcinogens standard, recognizing the health hazards of unseen toxins.

In 1980, worker safety (and thus OSHA responsibility) expanded to cover all federal workers under the order of President Lyndon B. Johnson. 1982 saw the arrival of Voluntary Protection Programs, and the following year saw the passage of the historic hazard communication standard.

Learning from the History of Occupational Health and Safety

We’ve come a long way in the history of occupational health and safety. There once was a time when workplaces didn’t have any sanitation standards. Now we regulate toxins that we can’t even see.

The important thing to remember is that workplace safety has evolved and will continue to evolve over time. Your workplace needs to be ready to keep up. That’s why we’re here to help ensure that you can stay on top of compliance tasks, no matter how big or small your compliance issue may be.

Topics: OSHA, Workplace Health and Safety, Compliance

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