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Lordy, Lordy OSHA is Forty

40President Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act into law on December 29, 1970 creating OSHA as federal agency within the Department of Labor. Congress charged OSHA with the mission”. . . 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.”  They do this by setting and enforcing standards, and by providing training, outreach, education, and assistance. This year on April 28, 2011, OSHA turns 40 years old

OSHA worked hard in the first years to develop standards and create training for industries covered by its jurisdiction. First among those new standards were rules limiting the workplace exposure to the cancer-causing asbestos. About a year and a half after its inception, OSHA issued the first safety standards for the construction industry.

Fast forward to today where things have changed significantly. In the most recent year, OSHA conducted 40,933 workplace inspections and identified 96,742 violations. Federal OSHA employs over 1,100 compliance inspectors and that doesn’t count the 27 states that are covered by their own state OSHA.

In the 40 years since OSHA’s birth, occupational injury rates have dropped by about 67 percent.  While there is strong debate in the safety profession if the safety improvements can be credited to OSHA or to insurance pressure and business owners’ drive for improvement, there can be no argument that OSHA has left a distinct impact on the U.S. workplace.

In the construction industry, the OSHA 10 Hour and OSHA 30 Hour training courses have become the benchmarks for learning hazard recognition. In all industries, OSHA’s recordkeeping statistics, such as the Recordable Incident Rate and Lost Time Incident Rate, are widely recognized metrics of safety performance.  And, while the costs of injuries and illnesses are far greater than any fines, it seems that penalties from OSHA citations (which can cost as much as $70,000 per violation) get the most attention. This past year, OSHA announced several significant changes to the penalty structure which will greatly increase the average fine paid by employers.

What will the next 40 years bring for OSHA? Will OSHA lead the way on protecting the next generation of America’s workforce, or will they become insignificant as employers and workers come together to eliminate hazards without regulatory pressure? No one can say for sure.