Together, we can make Minnesota a safer place to work

Editor’s note: Ken Peterson was appointed commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry by Gov. Mark Dayton in December 2010. Previously, he served in the same position from 1988 to 1990. Peterson wrote this guest column on Workers Memorial Day for the May 2012 Union Advocate.

Each year Workers Memorial Day is celebrated to remember those who have suffered and died on the job. April 28 was originally chosen as Workers Memorial Day because it was the date in 1971 on which the federal Occupational Safety Health Act, or OSHA, went into effect.

The nation’s workplaces have grown successively safer since passage of the OSHA Act. For example, in 1970 there were 14,000 fatalities nationwide; in 2009, there were 4,547 fatalities, despite nationwide employment almost doubling during that time. Workers’ exposure to hazards and toxic chemicals, such as asbestos, benzene and lead, has been reduced, and far fewer workers die today from trench cave-ins or from being harmed by unguarded machinery.

Economic and technological changes undoubtedly are partially responsible for the decline in fatalities and injuries. Fewer Americans work in historically dangerous occupations such as manufacturing and coal mining. Other occupations, such as logging, have dramatically reduced injuries through mechanization.

Nevertheless, OSHA – both by enforcing safety standards and by advising employers and employees about safer practices – has played a major role in making workplaces less dangerous.

During these times, which are often filled with political partisan strife, it is instructive to recall that OSHA’s enactment 41 years ago was a demonstration that job safety does not have to be a partisan issue, nor should it be.

The road to OSHA’s enactment began in 1969 when President Richard Nixon proposed a work-safety bill. Then in 1970, Sen. Harrison Williams of New Jersey, chairman of the Labor Committee, passed a version, favored by labor unions, based largely on a bill proposed in 1968 by then-President Lyndon Johnson.

The House of Representatives, like the Senate, was controlled by Democrats. Yet the real power was found in a coalition of mostly southern, conservative Democrats and Republicans. Their leader on this issue was William Steiger, a young GOP congressman from Wisconsin.

Although Steiger was conservative about many ideas, he deeply believed Americans deserved safe places to work. I’m sure Steiger spoke often about the need for increased workplace safety with his best friend in Congress, Donald Rumsfeld from Illinois, and the young intern on his staff named Dick Cheney.

The Steiger bill was backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and passed in the House. Steiger and Williams, on behalf of the Senate, worked out a compromise called the Williams-Steiger Act that was acceptable to businesses, labor and the president. Hence, OSHA went into effect on April 28, 1971.

Sadly, shortly after being re-elected in 1978, Steiger died of a heart attack. Today, he is remembered by the Industrial Hygienists Association, which annually presents the William Steiger award to the individual in the social or political sphere who has contributed the most to workplace safety and health.

Williams’ political career also ended unfortunately, yet in a different fashion. The long-serving liberal who had been instrumental in passing a number of pro-labor measures in the ‘60s and ‘70s, was convicted in 1982 of taking a bribe in a FBI congressional sting operation and had to resign.

However, in 1971 Williams and Steiger were at the height of their legislative powers. Both knew Americans needed less dangerous places to work, so the two fierce partisans set aside party politics and passed the OSHA bill that has helped make jobsites safer and healthier places to work.

Their bipartisan legacy continues today throughout the nation and in Minnesota. One of the nation’s best OSHA programs is found in the reliably Republican state of South Carolina, while another is in resolutely Democratic California. In Minnesota, a series of Republican, DFL and Independent governors and legislators of all political stripes have championed OSHA throughout the years.

While Minnesota still has too many workplace deaths – Minnesota OSHA investigated 22 in 2011 – today’s workplaces are safer and better, at least in part, because of the bipartisan efforts of William Steiger and Harrison Williams 41 years ago.

In that same cooperative spirit, let us all make a daily commitment to put safety first in our work activities. Together, we can make Minnesota a safer place to work.

%d bloggers like this: