Guest Column: Occupational Safety and Health Administration turns 40

April 27, 2011

By Kathy Webb
OSHA Northwest Area Director

In the 40 years since the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was created, the agency has led the way to historic declines in workplace fatalities, injuries and illnesses. Today, OSHA continues to make a difference in the lives of all workers by ensuring businesses provide safe and healthful conditions for their workers.

At the turn of the 20th century, death in American workplaces was all too common, working conditions were dreadful, and few laws existed to protect workers. Through efforts by individual workers, unions, employers, government agencies, and others, significant progress has been made in improving workplace conditions.

Since OSHA’s inception in 1970, workplace fatalities have been cut by more than 65 percent, and occupational injury and illness rates have declined 67 percent. At the same time, U.S. employment has almost doubled and now totals more than 107 million workers at 7.6 million worksites.

In 1970, on average, 38 American workers were killed on the job every day. That rate has now fallen to just more than 12 workers per day. That’s an outstanding collective achievement. But there is clearly much work to be done to ensure all workers can be productive and safe, while looking forward to a retirement free from disabling occupational disease and injury.

In northwest Illinois counties, grain handling hazards, fall hazards and trenching hazards remain serious issues our inspectors have identified. In 2010, we witnessed a tragic accident at a grain bin facility, which resulted in the deaths of two teen-age workers. The workers were killed when they suffocated after being engulfed by grain. We frequently find employees working on roofs with no fall protection or in trenches more than 5 feet deep with no cave-in protection. In 2010, OSHA investigated 61 worker fatalities throughout Illinois.

Over the past four decades, America’s workers across all industries have benefited from common-sense government standards and greater awareness of workplace safety practices brought about by OSHA. Workers in high-hazard industries, such as construction and manufacturing, have especially benefited from OSHA’s efforts.

OSHA has had a positive impact in the lives of all Americans. However, until every worker can return home safely, free from harm at the end of the day, we must celebrate cautiously and never lose sight of the fact that no job is a good job unless it’s also a safe job.

Kathy Webb is the OSHA area director for the northwest Illinois area.

From the April 27-May 3, 2011 issue

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