The Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA) is a United States federal law which oversees health and safety in both the public and private workplace sectors. Signed into law by President Nixon in 1970, the goal of the law is to ensure the workplace safety of employees, by requiring employers to remove potential hazards such as unsanitary conditions, toxic chemicals, mechanical dangers, and excessive noise.
The legal forerunners of OSHA were introduced with the passing of the Safety Appliance Act in 1893. This was the first federal law to require workplace safety equipment, although it only applied to railroad workers. Later, in 1910, after a series of deadly mine explosions, Congress created the Bureau of the Mines to research improvements in mine safety. With the increased industrial production following World War II, accidents in the workplace soared to an all time high. In the two years preceding the introduction of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, about 14,000 employees died each year from accidents and another 2 million were injured on the job. Additionally, the increase in the use of manufacturing chemicals exposed workers to greater amounts of hazards.
Heightened awareness in the mid 1960’s about the environmental impact of chemical usage increased the public’s interest in protecting worker safety, as exposure to toxins was greater for employees than the environment into which the chemicals were dumped. After President Johnson tried to introduce a comprehensive worker protection bill that later failed, President Nixon proposed OSHA. This compromise bill was less demanding on the employers, although it did utilize the Department of Labor’s ability to enforce employer violations. OSHA officially went into effect on April 28, 1971, which is now celebrated as Worker’s Memorial Day by many American Labor Unions.
OSHA also created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an agency within the Department of Labor. This Administration has the jurisdiction to create and enforce workplace standards. The Act also formed the independent Occupational Health and Safety Review Commission to review enforcement actions. Finally, OSHA also established the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), another autonomous research organization that forms a part of the Center for Disease Control. By creating independent investigative agencies, OSHA effectively created a systems of bureaucratic checks and balances for the best of worker protection laws and to provide a fair and methodological enforcement of such rules.