I Don’t Mind Working, But I Do Mind Dying

When you go to work in the morning, you often take for granted that you’ll return home safely that evening. But at a time when conservatives are attacking regulation in general and OSHA’s budget in particular, it’s crucial for us to remember that worker health and safety protections keep us alive and well.

Workers in the US are much safer on the job today than they were in the 1960s, a time before the government paid much attention to health or safety. It’s true that occupational injuries and deaths remain unacceptably high today – each year about 55,000 people die from work-related injury or illness [PDF]. But these numbers have decreased remarkably over the past few decades, largely because of federal agencies like OSHA and MSHA.

A report that I recently authored takes a close look at how five regulatory initiatives have prevented workers from dying, developing illnesses, or becoming injured. For the most part, industry groups initially opposed each of these regulations while downplaying health risks posed by the hazard in question. With no hint of irony, many of the same groups that had vehemently opposed the regulations at first would later come to offer words of support for the rules.

Here are some of the report’s highlights:

  • A respiratory disease called ‘brown lung’ was once a common problem among textile workers. Just a few years after OSHA took action by limiting cotton dust exposure, the disease was nearly eradicated. The costs of complying with the regulation were far below OSHA and industry estimates. As an added benefit, the rule spurred industry to adopt more efficient machinery, which boosted production.
  • A simple OSHA rule requiring manufacturers to place locks and warning labels on equipment prevents 50,000 injuries and 120 fatalities per year.
  • An OSHA rule on excavations at construction sites has reduced the fatality rate from cave-ins by 40 percent.
  • An OSHA rule regulating the amount of combustible dust allowed in grain elevators reduced the number of fatalities caused by explosions by 95 percent.
  • A 1969 law instituting inspections in coal mines as well as new mine health and safety standards led to a rapid 50 percent decrease in the coal mine fatality rate.