By RaShawn Austin, CHST SCTPP Health & Safety Director
December 29th holds more than the anticipation of the year's end; it marks a historic milestone—the signing of The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA). This pioneering legislation also recognized as the Williams-Steiger Act, fearlessly confronted hazardous working conditions at job sites nationwide. In an era where workplace safety was a luxury rather than a guarantee, OSHA emerged as a crucial response to the pressing need for comprehensive protection for American workers.
Prior to the establishment of OSHA, safety standards varied widely from state to state, resulting in inconsistent or nonexistent guidelines. This inconsistency left construction job sites fraught with hazards, contributing to alarming rates of injuries and fatalities.
During his testimony advocating for the enactment of OSHA, Representative William A. Steiger (R-Wisconsin), a congressional member from 1967 to 1978, highlighted the gravity of the situation: "In the past 25 years, over 400,000 Americans lost their lives to work-related accidents and diseases, while nearly 50 million others endured debilitating injuries on the job." Each day, construction workers face the unpredictable hazards of job sites. Some companies, prioritizing cost-cutting over employee well-being, chose to replace a deceased or injured worker rather than invest in enhanced safety measures to prevent work-related accidents. Representative Steiger poignantly articulated the grim reality: "This not only inflicted incalculable pain and suffering on workers and their families but also incurred billions of dollars in lost wages and production."
When President Nixon signed the bill into law in 1970, one stroke of the presidential pen heralded a seismic shift in workplace safety regulations, ensuring safe and healthy working conditions for employees across various industries, including construction.
Key provisions mandate that employers provide a workplace free from recognized hazards, maintain records of work-related injuries and illnesses and offer training programs to educate workers about potential risks.
For the construction sector, OSHA introduced stringent safety standards and guidelines. It mandated the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), fall prevention measures, proper equipment maintenance, and the implementation of safety training programs. Employers were required to adhere to specific protocols, conduct regular inspections, and provide a safe environment conducive to worker well-being.
The result has been undeniably transformative. Workers now benefit from better protection, enhanced training, and increased accountability among employers. Safety innovations, such as advanced protective gear and technology-driven risk assessments, continue to further improve workplace safety. As a result of these improved safety measures, stringent compliance, and heightened awareness, the U.S. Department of Labor reports that workplace fatalities have fallen by 60 percent, and work-related injuries and illnesses have been cut by 40 percent since the law took effect in 1971.
At that time, OSHA protected 56 million employees across 3.5 million job sites; now, in 2023, OSHA covers more than 105 million workers and companies across 6.9 million job sites.
However, challenges persist. The dynamic nature of construction work, with its diverse projects and evolving technologies, presents ongoing safety concerns. Adapting regulations to keep pace with industry changes, ensuring comprehensive training, and addressing emerging hazards like silica dust exposure and mental health issues remain pressing.
As the construction industry evolves, the legacy of OSHA serves as a beacon, guiding continual improvements in safety standards and practices. By fostering a collaborative approach between employers, workers, regulators, and innovators, we can strive for a future where every individual in the construction sector returns home safely each day.