Nixon Signs the Occupational Safety and Health Act

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 gave the federal government the responsibility of establishing and enforcing safety standards in the workplace.

Summary of Event

On December 29, 1970, President Richard M. Nixon signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA), mandating that the U.S. Department of Labor establish health and safety standards in the workplace with the goal of achieving the “highest degree of health and safety protection for the employee.” This was one of a series of statutes, sometimes referred to as “public interest labor laws,” that began with the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (1959)[Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act]
Landrum-Griffin Act (1959)[Landrum Griffin Act] of 1959 (the Landrum-Griffin Act). OSHA’s purview would come to encompass both health and safety standards. In the 1970’s, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Occupational Safety and Health Administration (also known as OSHA), created by the act, stressed direct government regulation of safety in the workplace. In the 1980’s, OSHA extended its efforts to the communication of information, primarily through the labeling of hazardous chemicals. Enforcement involved inspections, financial penalties, and recourse to criminal prosecutions. Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970)
Workplace hazards
Workers’ rights[Workers rights]
[kw]Nixon Signs the Occupational Safety and Health Act (Dec. 29, 1970)
[kw]Occupational Safety and Health Act, Nixon Signs the (Dec. 29, 1970)
[kw]Health Act, Nixon Signs the Occupational Safety and (Dec. 29, 1970)
[kw]Act, Nixon Signs the Occupational Safety and Health (Dec. 29, 1970)
Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970)
Workplace hazards
Workers’ rights[Workers rights]
[g]North America;Dec. 29, 1970: Nixon Signs the Occupational Safety and Health Act[11100]
[g]United States;Dec. 29, 1970: Nixon Signs the Occupational Safety and Health Act[11100]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 29, 1970: Nixon Signs the Occupational Safety and Health Act[11100]
[c]Business and labor;Dec. 29, 1970: Nixon Signs the Occupational Safety and Health Act[11100]
[c]Health and medicine;Dec. 29, 1970: Nixon Signs the Occupational Safety and Health Act[11100]
Nixon, Richard M.
[p]Nixon, Richard M.;workplace safety
Williams, Harrison A., Jr.
Shultz, George P.
Carter, Jimmy

The act grew out of growing concern for issues related to the environment and awareness of dangers in the workplace. Among important early issues addressed by OSHA were asbestosis Asbestosis (a lung disease caused by breathing asbestos particles), respiratory diseases among cotton workers, and various forms of cancer. Between 1964 and 1969, the injury rate in manufacturing increased by almost 25 percent. Efforts to address black lung disease Black lung disease were included in the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act Coal Mine Health and Safety Act (1969) of 1969. Other acts had been passed to protect certain workers, such as longshoremen and construction workers, but the OSHA regulations superseded these laws and extended to many previously uncovered sectors. Causing considerable controversy were situations in which employers knew of dangers but workers did not.

The high cost of safety made it unlikely that standards would be met unless mandated by government statute. It was also hoped that OSHA would alleviate some of the problems associated with state-administered workers’ compensation programs. Some injuries were not compensated or were not adequately compensated, yet the costs of workers’ compensation programs were very high. Advocates of new regulations proposed injury prevention as a way of reducing compensation payments. In addition, it was argued that workers’ compensation programs might cause people to feign injuries, be less cautious, or stay out of work longer than necessary. By increasing time at work and reducing expenditures on workers’ compensation, increased safety would be better for the individuals directly involved and for society as a whole.

It was also pointed out that because employers paid into the workers’ compensation program and because benefits to workers differed among states, the cost of injuries was not uniform among the states. As a result, incentives for employers to provide safe workplaces were not the same. In addition, a given safety standard might have different costs in different states, depending on such factors as wage rates and prevailing technology in use. Secretary of Labor George Shultz pointed to the increasing incidence of workplace injuries and the costs of medical care and workers’ compensation claims as evidence of the need for passage of the OSHA law. In congressional hearings it was pointed out that in some European countries national standards had been imposed, but they had met with mixed results. In sectors such as steel and chemicals, the U.S. safety record was far better than that of the United Kingdom, even though the latter country had a national safety program.

Senate Bill 2193 created the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, along with an independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. The first two agencies were to conduct inspections and investigations; the third was intended to hear appeals by employers relating to the decisions of the first two agencies. A 1978, Supreme Court decision prevented OSHA from conducting inspections without cause, limiting the ability to catch violators in the act. The decision, however, allowed for warrants permitting inspections. States maintained the right to establish their own safety programs provided that they received prior approval from OSHA. State standards therefore had to match those at the federal level or provide greater protection. OSHA provided workers with a form of redress beyond that provided through collective bargaining agreements. Equally important, the Supreme Court ruled in Alexander v. Gardner-Denver (1974) Alexander v. Gardner-Denver (1974) that workers could seek statutory redress even after making use of the grievance procedures established in a collective bargaining agreement.

The mandate of the OSHA law represented a shift from issues of cost efficiency in production to equity. The goal was to eliminate injuries in the workplace without explicit consideration of costs and benefits. The legislation represented a movement away from a system for determining reparations after an accident to an approach intended to set standards that would prevent accidents.


OSHA brought to the forefront a number of issues central to the future of industrial relations in the United States. Previous legislation, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) and its amendments, set limits on wages, hours, and other conditions of employment, but the way production was conducted was left to be decided by employers and workers. The theory of “compensating wage differentials” argued that unsafe, high-risk jobs would require higher wages to attract workers. Workers who chose those occupations would be compensated for the risk by higher wages. In cases in which the allocation of workers among jobs was unacceptable, unions, through collective bargaining, would negotiate a package of wages and safety standards mutually agreeable to both the employer and the employee.

President Richard M. Nixon.

(Library of Congress)

The justification for direct government intrusion into the way production was conducted rested on two premises. To the extent that the way goods are produced affects people other than the employer and the employee, the interest of those others may justify a role for the government. As an example, exposure of pregnant women to certain chemicals may be a health hazard not only to them but also to their future children. Society may feel compelled to limit such exposure in the interests of the unborn even if the women are willing to risk exposure. OSHA policies sought to control the social costs of unsafe workplaces. A second justification arises in cases in which the risk of disease or injury is not known or is underestimated by the worker. In this context, workers are unable to make informed decisions. From a purely monetary perspective, there may even exist incentives for employers to conceal true risks from employees. In this case, the role of the government may take the form of setting standards or providing information.

From its very passage, however, the OSHA law was plagued with problems. The act provided no penalties for employees who were careless or deliberately unsafe, only an encouragement to act safely. The act provided for sanctions against employers including citations and fines. When corrective measures prescribed by OSHA were not adhered to, the agency had recourse to the courts. In 1972, twenty-four hundred citations were issued under the act. The number increased to forty-three thousand in 1973. Companies found it especially difficult to understand what OSHA expected and how the OSHA standards were to be implemented. The Subcommittee on Labor of the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare of the United States Senate held numerous oversight hearings at which employers vociferously addressed the uneven enforcement of the act, the trivial nature of many standards, and the excessive costs of adherence to standards. Enforcement efforts were criticized for unevenness and for responding to the preferences of the political party in office.

Because the mandate of OSHA could be carried out either by state programs or at the federal level, any assessment must look at the two distinct modes of implementation. Although states were allowed to establish their own mechanisms for enforcement, standards were at least to equal those at the federal level. In part, the federal statute was a response to the failure of state programs adequately to address the problems of workplace injuries, yet the statute allowed for state implementation of the program for two principal reasons. First, some legislators were concerned with states’ rights, particularly in the light of problems with implementing federal programs. Second, there were more than two thousand state inspectors, with millions of dollars spent on safety by states. The federal government was not interested in dismantling the state programs or assuming this additional cost.

Initially there was little evidence that OSHA had the effect of reducing injuries in the workplace. Two explanations were offered: Some argued that the penalties for violating safety standards were so low that it was more profitable for firms to violate the standards and pay fines if caught rather than make changes to meet standards. In addition, the likelihood of a firm’s being inspected were small, so the chances of being caught were low. The second explanation was that OSHA concentrated on standards for machinery and equipment while ignoring the human aspect in many accidents. Safe machines do not ensure a safe workplace in the absence of safe operation and supervision.

Congress nevertheless continues to support OSHA, for at least two reasons: One is that OSHA has been able to increase compliance. In other words, it is able to impose penalties that reduce the likelihood of firms repeatedly violating standards. It can force compliance even if that does not translate immediately into fewer injuries. A second factor is the significant indirect influence of OSHA on the structure of American industry. Large firms and unionized firms tend to be safer in part because of the ability to bear the costs of increased safety and also because of economies of scale associated with safety. An expenditure to make a machine safer will be more cost effective if the machine is used by ten people rather than by one person. OSHA, by concentrating on sectors with the greatest incidence of injuries, intrudes most on small, nonunion operations. As a consequence, costs are driven up in these firms, giving large firms and unionized firms cost advantages. These are the same firms that are able to influence political decisions the most. It comes as no surprise, then, that these firms support continuation of OSHA. Support may come in the guise of promotion of safety, but large firms also gain a cost advantage as a result of safety and health regulation. Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970)
Workplace hazards
Workers’ rights[Workers rights]

Further Reading

  • Goetsch, David L. Occupational Safety and Health for Technologists, Engineers, and Managers. 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2007. A textbook that addresses all aspects of occupational safety and health in the global workplace. Includes a historical overview and covers laws and regulations; the human element; hazard assessment, prevention, and control; and management of safety and health. Also covers obesity and accident causation; common accident investigation mistakes; participatory ergonomics; preventing arc flash injuries; emergency planning for workers with disabilities; safely resuming business after a disaster; and occupational safety and health management systems.
  • McGarity, Thomas O., and Sidney A. Shapiro. Workers at Risk: The Failed Promise of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1993. Two administrative law scholars criticize OSHA as far from meeting its two-decades-old mandate to protect American workers; they suggest ways the agency can get back on track. Good for historical context.
  • Reese, Charles D. Occupational Health and Safety Management: A Practical Approach. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 2003. Offers an approach management can take to occupational health and safety issues.
  • Viscusi, W. Kip. Fatal Tradeoffs. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. A detailed economic discussion of how risk is evaluated. Empirical evidence is used to examine the effectiveness of OSHA in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The author is the leading economic authority on risk in the workplace.
  • Warren, A. C., Jr., ed. “Occupational Safety and Health.” Law and Contemporary Problems 38 (Summer/Autumn, 1974): 583-757. An early collection of eight articles looking at the legal and economic aspects associated with the implementation of OSHA.

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