Fifty years ago today, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened its doors, American workplaces were full of dangers. In 1970, an average of 38 workers were killed on the job every day, and many thousands more were injured or sickened by exposures to toxic chemicals. The law that created OSHA was revolutionary: It established, for the first time, the right to a safe workplace, free of serious hazards. Businesses had to comply with federal regulations and permit inspectors to examine their facilities.
The agency, which I directed from 2009 to 2017, has improved working conditions for generations of Americans. It has prevented thousands of deaths and millions of injuries. Today, even with a much larger work force, 14 workers on average are killed on the job each day, a great improvement — although that’s still 14 deaths too many.
But in recent years, progress has slowed. Fatality rates plateaued more than a decade ago. Workers of color, particularly Black and Latino workers, are overrepresented in dangerous occupations and thus disproportionately suffer the tragic consequences. About 3.5 million workers are reported injured on the job every year, but since many injuries aren’t recorded by employers, the true number is higher.
The Covid-19 crisis serves as a reminder of the challenges of protecting the nation’s workers, millions of whom have risked their lives to provide medical care, stock grocery shelves and operate public transit. After the pandemic began, the Trump administration refused to issue new labor regulations, and OSHA did not require employers to take steps to prevent workers from becoming infected with the coronavirus. Countless workers were sickened. Many died and the virus spread from workplaces into communities. During his election campaign, President Biden committed to taking strong action, but thus far has not done so, although this week Politico reported that new guidelines may be forthcoming.
OSHA’s limitations predate the pandemic. The agency’s enforcement staff is so small that if OSHA sent inspectors to every workplace, it would take 162 years to visit them all. New regulations often take 10 or more years to be finalized. The maximum fine for a serious OSHA violation is $13,353 — petty cash to any large employer — and the criminal charge for the work-related death of an employee is a misdemeanor, not a felony.
The emergence of the online platform economy has allowed more businesses to abdicate responsibility for the people doing work on their behalf, since gig workers aren’t afforded the protections available to regular employees. In addition, several other groups — independent contractors, people working on small farms, eight million public sector workers in 24 states and the District of Columbia — have no legal right to a safe workplace. Temporary workers, who are at greater risk of injury and death than traditionally employed workers, also often fall between the cracks.
OSHA needs to adapt to the changing nature of the American labor market. It can take a cue from countries like Australia and New Zealand, which have embraced a new model called “duty of care,” in which companies must ensure that their activities do not endanger the health and safety of any worker, regardless of type.
As OSHA begins its sixth decade, it can make changes to improve the safety of American workplaces. A large majority of chemicals used in the workplace are unregulated, and in the past 20 years, the agency has established maximum allowable exposure levels for only three chemicals. OSHA needs a more nimble system for issuing requirements that describe how employers must limit exposures to chemicals, violence, excessive heat and other hazards.
While OSHA badly needs more inspectors, it will never have enough to visit all workplaces. To broaden its impact, the agency should augment the consequences for violating safety regulations in order to encourage employers to address hazards before OSHA inspects, and before workers get hurt. Publicizing safety violations can serve as an effective deterrent: One study found that OSHA would have to conduct 210 inspections to achieve the same amount of deterrence as a single news release detailing a severe safety violation.
And while financial penalties might, in theory, prompt employers to follow safety rules, OSHA’s fines are tiny compared with those levied by other government agencies that also protect the public from illegal corporate behavior. Increasing fines to the levels of those issued by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Securities and Exchange Commission, for example, could help encourage employers to prioritize worker protections. So would instituting more severe criminal penalties for particularly egregious violations, such as those that result in serious injuries.
Thanks to OSHA’s efforts, countless workers have been spared injuries, illnesses, disability and premature death. But too many are still being hurt on the job. The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us the value of the often invisible workers who make our economy function. OSHA should modernize to ensure that all workers are able to do their jobs and at the end of their shifts go home safe and healthy.
David Michaels (@DrDavidMichaels) is an epidemiologist at the George Washington School of Public Health who served as assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Barack Obama. He is the author of “The Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception.”