Industrialization transformed America from the country the Founders knew—of small cities, candlelight, outdoor privies, and family farms reachable only by horse—into the one we know today of cars, tall buildings, electricity, indoor plumbing, and food in abundance. Given a choice, most of us would not go back. But for all the good it brought, the Industrial Revolution, which began shortly before the Civil War and culminated in the mid-20th century, exacted terrible costs. One was in blood; literally, the blood of workers crushed by machines, maimed by falls, and sickened by coal dust.
These were not problems governments wanted to take on—or thought they could solve. For the most part, mayors and governors in the late 1800s believed that what happened in factories and mines was between employers and workers. What could governments do?
The answers came in three phases, with governments acting as reluctant participants. The first was physical design. Cities could inspect workplaces for health and fire safety to be sure exits were maintained and ventilation was adequate. The second was creating state workers’ compensation programs, which provided payments to the injured as they healed and to families for those who perished. The final phase was industrial processes. This brought government inspectors into workplaces and required companies to change processes that might result in injury or disability.
Why was government so reluctant to do these things? For the most part, governments don’t seek new things to do and certainly don’t seek things outside their areas of focus and expertise, which are in the public realm. Workplace safety was assumed to be entirely about things in the private realm of business.
What overcame the reluctance was public outrage in first and final phases of reform, aided by the rise of labor unions. In the case of workers’ compensation, ironically, it was pressure from businesses that caused government to get involved.
We’ve seen this before; instances when governments were dragged into action by public outrage: building codes and inspections, honest markets and sound banks, civil rights and voting rights, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and food and drug safety. And there are examples of businesses turning to government because, at the end of the day, it was the only institution that could solve a major problem businesses faced: nuclear safety and nuclear waste disposal, interstate transportation, and dependable insurance, among others.
But workplace safety? Dragging governments into the world of work took tidal waves of public outrage and pleading by businesses.
The first wave—city inspections for health and safety—was brought on by spectacular industrial disasters. The best known was the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911, which killed 146 workers in New York, most of them women and children. Newspaper readers were horrified by everything about this disaster: the exploitation of the workers, the owners’ disregard for safety, the stories of women leaping from upper floors to their deaths as flames closed in, the stacks of bodies found in the smoldering rubble.
But this was just one of a number of workplace disasters. There were factory accidents like the one in Brockton, Massachusetts in 1905 that killed 58 people and injured 150. And then there were mining disasters, which were routine and horrible. One of the deadliest was a coal mine explosion in Monongah, West Virginia that killed at least 367 miners in 1907. (The exact total wasn’t known because some of the miners had brought their children to work with them.)
The response by some state legislatures and city councils in the late 1800s was to require fire exits and ventilation in factories. The federal government passed mine legislation in 1891 requiring ventilation in mines and forbidding mine owners from hiring children under age 12. (Here’s how modest this law was: It applied only to mines in U.S. territories, not states.) Gradually in the early 1900s, states added tougher factory safety measures and began requiring inspections. (The federal government’s first meaningful mine safety regulations were passed much later, in 1952.)
The second wave of reform was workers’ compensation. This was the reform that businesses wanted.
Why? Because while governments were loathe to get involved in how businesses worked, courts were not—if there were liability claims to settle. And while relatively few workers in the early 20th century sued employers when they were hurt on the job, enough did to frighten business owners. Their answer: Take these claims out of courts and let insurance decide who gets paid for workplace injuries and how much. For that, businesses needed state legislation.
Turns out, businesses weren’t the only ones who liked the workers’ compensation idea. Labor unions liked it, too, because it made it more likely workers would receive some compensation if injured. State governments were agreeable as long as the money came from companies, which were required in most places to pay premiums just like any other insurance. Even insurance companies liked these programs because, depending on the system state governments set up, insurers could participate by offering workers’ comp policies. (Many observers believe, in the end, workers’ comp benefited employers more than employees.)
Not surprisingly, then, workers’ comp legislation flew through state legislatures. Between 1910 and 1920, 42 states established workers’ compensation programs. (Today all states sponsor some form of workers’ compensation.)
By the 1920s, then, state and city inspections for safety and health had made workplaces a little safer. Workers’ comp had also helped a bit since companies with more claims paid higher premiums, which gave them some incentive to improve conditions. But it was still appalling how many businesses saw injury and death as . . . well, the cost of doing business.
What changed things in the 1960s was a new force: the environmental movement and, with it, growing concern about chemicals in the environment. Labor unions seized on public concerns to press for greater government oversight of the workplace, where chemicals were often part of the manufacturing process.
It wasn’t a chemical, however, that made the case for government intervention. It was a mineral called asbestos, which was widespread in industry, schools, and homes by the mid-20th century.
Asbestos is a fire retardant that’s cheap to mine and easy to work with. People have been using it in products for 4,500 years. By the 1960s, it had found its way into schools, where it coated heat ducts; houses, where it was mixed into asphalt shingles; and offices, where you could find it in ceiling insulation. Asbestos was baked into bricks and mixed into fireplace cement. If you bought a car in the 1960s, the brake pads of your car almost certainly contained asbestos. And it was widespread in factories where heat was a danger.
There was one problem with this miracle substance: It was toxic, and breathing its filaments, which floated like dust in factories, could gradually destroy workers’ lungs. One of its victims was actor Steve McQueen, who died in 1980 of mesothelioma, a form of cancer caused by asbestos. McQueen was exposed to asbestos when, as a Marine, he was assigned to remove asbestos from pipes in Navy ships. Later, he wore flame-retardant suits made of asbestos when he drove race cars, his passion away from the movie set.
Nothing governments had done to that point—inspecting workplaces for fire safety or making sure workers were compensated when injured—could help those exposed to slow-developing illnesses caused by workplace substances like asbestos or even repeated small traumas. Carpal tunnel syndrome, for example, is a debilitating condition that leaves people with numbness in their hands. It can be caused over years by repetitive motions like typing or by working with tools that vibrate.
As evidence grew of this kind of workplace injury, so did demands for federal action, with labor unions leading the charge. In January 1968 President Lyndon Johnson introduced a comprehensive workplace safety act. Johnson’s bill did not pass, but a somewhat more limited version passed two years later and was signed into law by President Richard Nixon.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 did four things that took government into workplace processes. First, it created a federal research agency to study work-related injuries and illnesses and, where possible, suggest processes and equipment to reduce them. Second, the law protected workers who reported dangerous conditions from being fired for speaking up. Third, it required that employers report within eight hours if a worker died in a work-related incident or if three or more employees were injured. It also required that all incidents resulting in medical treatment beyond first aid be reported in an annual form.
Finally, the law established a new agency, called the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under the federal Department of Labor. Part of OSHA’s mission was to investigate workplaces with a record of injuries and illnesses. If inspectors found dangerous conditions that could be fixed—and could show that the employers knew about these conditions but did nothing to correct them—the agency could fine the company or issue a citation, which is a warning to the company to fix the problems.
But policing individual workplaces in a country with nearly 8 million of them is a slow and ineffective way of improving safety. And OSHA’s fines were never great enough to act as much of a deterrent. That’s why OSHA’s greatest impact came from setting safety standards that employers must follow. These ranged from setting maximum chemical exposure levels to dictating the equipment workers must wear when working around machinery. If you visit a factory today and see guards on machinery that protect hands and employees wearing hard hats, safety glasses, and respirators, it’s almost certainly because OSHA requires it.
Has all this worked? In the past half-century, has OSHA reduced workplace injuries and deaths? Yes, impressively so. In 1970 an estimated 14,000 workers died in work-related incidents, an average of 38 a day. In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, 5,250 workers died or 14 a day. Considering employment has more than doubled since 1970, this is a remarkable record. (There are 161 million workers in America.) Even more impressive is the decline in illnesses and injuries, from 10.9 per 100 workers in 1972 to 2.8 in 2018.
OSHA did this by using the strengths of government. It attacked the problems of workplace safety comprehensively, using research, reporting, rule-making, inspections, and lawsuits. (For another example of how governments have reduced problems through a comprehensive approach, see our entry on fire safety and prevention.)
It used federalism intelligently. States can adopt their own OSHA-style regulations and take over inspections—so long as the state’s efforts are at least as protective of workers as the federal ones. Twenty-one states and Puerto Rico have created OSHA equivalents. Again, this is a familiar story; we’ve found numerous examples of well-functioning federalism.
Finally, it has been steadfast. OSHA—both the 1970 law and the agency that was created—has faced almost unrelenting opposition from some parts of the business community and some members of Congress. But as a PBS documentary explained in 2003, OSHA has endured and succeeded. Despite numerous efforts to reduce its budget, the agency’s funding has remained steady because most members of Congress—and the public—do not want to return to the days of 14,000 deaths a year and workplace chemicals that leave workers critically ill.
Steadfastness—simply sticking with a task—is a core strength of government. Again and again, we’ve seen how governments can produce great results, from lowering water consumption and flattening electricity demand, to reducing water and air pollution and revolutionizing agriculture by finding what works and sticking to it.
Final note: The story of government in workplace safety, particularly since 1970, shows us an additional role for government, as the only institution that can put the brakes on a “race to the bottom.” That’s a term describing a competition that gets so far out of hand that it creates serious negative externalities.
Sometimes governments themselves engage in these destructive competitions, as when cities or states get into bidding wars for large employers. But most often it describes what companies do to keep prices low by cutting wages, dumping toxins in the water or air, or skimping on worker safety. Only government is big enough and focused enough on the public good to stop these dangerous competitions. And OSHA is a classic example of how government halts a race to the bottom by using the tools of government—rules, reports, inspections, and fines—with the temperament of a bureaucrat, which is patience and persistence.
Give the credit to: federal government 70%, state governments 20%, local governments 10%
Photo by Marcin Wichary licensed under Creative Commons.