Caution: going to work may still be dangerous to your health

Readable Research | By Abby Ferla |

Oct. 5, 2011 — In 1970, Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act and, to enforce it, created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Congress declared that its policy and purpose was “to assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions and to preserve our human resources.”

putting regulatory failures in context

Our specialty is original reporting. But in this case, we thought that it would be useful to compile previous reporting by others on individual instances of regulatory failure. A picture quickly emerges that is very different from the bogeyman of overregulation: an unmistakable, systemic pattern of under-regulation.

The series began with a look at the strikingly limited extent to which the Food and Drug Administration has regulated the cosmetics industry (read it here). This edition’s readable research is a chronicle of OSHA’s travails over the decades. Up next: the Securities and Exchange Commission, with more agencies to follow.

The series will conclude later this fall with original reporting that explores the key reasons — both internal to agencies and imposed upon them — for the recurring failures.


Over the decades, very significant declines have been achieved in workplace death and injury rates, but hazards — old and new — continue to harm workers and undermine the clear goal of the legislation.

From the readily available public record, several recurrent issues leap out: under-funding, under-staffing, under-enforcement, lax penalties, a tortured process under which it routinely takes several years to promulgate regulations on a vast array of workplace hazards.

Among other things, the agency’s task has become ever more difficult as anti-regulatory fervor has increased and as the will to insist that worker safety be treated as the preeminent policy consideration has, for much of the last 40 years, diminished.

When sources are available online, we link to them. When not available online, we use cite them in note form. To view the note online, place your cursor over the superscript number. To view the full article with end notes, click “Download a PDF” on the upper right of this page.

As extensive as this compilation is, it is only an illustrative — not a comprehesive — account of how the Occupational Safety and Health Act has and has not been enforced.



Senate Labor Subcommittee and the General Accounting Office (GAO, now the Government Accountability Office) conduct study on OSHA and find that, since its creation in 1971, the agency has inadequately protected worker safety. The study concludes that OSHA functions inconsistently across states and, in general, inspects only a small percentage of American workplaces every year. The study also reveals that OSHA investigators do not issue citations as frequently as they observe violations of OSHA rules; that agency record collecting is both flawed and inadequate; and that the agency devotes “an inordinate amount of time to non-serious violations.” Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr. (D-N.J.) attributes these shortcomings to the fact that “OSHA has been shackled by administrative ineptness.”



“The policy requiring an economic impact study before promulgating standards takes a one-sided view and fails to balance dollar costs of a standard against the cost in deaths, injuries, and illness and their economic and human consequences.” — AFL-CIO report, 1975

An AFL-CIO study determines that OSHA has too small a budget, is not sufficiently staffed, and has neither established nor properly enforced safety standards. The study additionally critiques the administration’s poor inspection record, noting that it visited only 1.3 percent of workplaces under its jurisdiction in 1974. The AFL-CIO suggests that OSHA’s poor record is due both to repeated under-funding and to a failure to consider human costs above financial costs.



An article in the New York Times reports that Congress only provides OSHA sufficient funds for 1,500 inspectors, “a force capable of examining annually – and often superficially – 2 percent of the nation’s workplaces.” The article reports that OSHA is under-funded, does not collect adequate information to make standards, and is met with abundant resistance from business interests in congress and presidential administrations opposed to regulation. Furthermore, the Times writers, “The agency concedes that almost all health standards that it has issued have been proposed only after it was threatened with legal action by a union or public interest groups.” Industry representatives say that businesses dislike OSHA because it is ineffective. The article references remarks made earlier in the year by President Gerald Ford at a Chamber of Commerce dinner in Nashua, N.H., in which he acknowledged that businesses had some reason to “want to throw OSHA into the ocean.” To ease the “petty tyranny of federal regulations” Ford assures them that, under his direction, OSHA will work with businesses as “friends, not as enemies.”



A July article in the Washington Post reports, “the federal job safety agency is overwhelmed with a growing backlog of suspected hazard and worker complaints that it has too small a staff to handle.” In a House Education and Labor subcommittee hearing, the Post reports, Assistant Labor Secretary Eula Bingham testifies that OSHA needs at least 85,000 compliance officers to inspect all national workplaces, but that with its staff of 1,500 officers, it can only see about 2 percent of these workplaces. Meanwhile, a waiting list of 5,000 safety complaints has been increasing for months.[1]

Alice Bonnerm, “OSHA Backlog Swells While its Staff Doesn’t,” The Washington Post, July 19, 1978, accessed September 2, 2011,



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