Ken Peterson: Safety legislation offers lesson in policy over party

Minnesota Labor Commissioner Ken Peterson

April 28 is Workers Memorial Day, meant to remember those who were killed at work and to advocate for improved worker safety and health. The day is also a useful reminder that elected representatives don’t need to be locked in acrimony and positional politics and that they can help.

Though the pain is great with each on-the-job death, we can take consolation in the fact that there are a lot fewer workplace deaths today than in 1970, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was created after long Congressional negotiations.

Deaths due to workplace injuries and illnesses have dropped from 14,000 in 1970 to 4,831 in 2015, despite a doubling in the size of the U.S. workforce. When you consider workforce size, 3.4 workers per 100,000 died in 2015 compared to 18 per 100,000 in 1970. Statistically, that 530 percent decline in workplace death rates is one of the greatest public health stories of the past half-century. For comparison, during the same time period, deaths from heart disease dropped 68 percent, while the death rates from cancer dropped 18 percent.

Of course, OSHA is not the only cause of fewer workplace deaths and injuries. Improved technology has made work in industries such as manufacturing, logging and construction much safer and healthier today than in the past. Many employers are also more aware of the emotional and financial costs of unsafe workplaces. Consequently, they emphasize safety and health, even sometimes at the cost of decreased production.

Still, enactment of the Williams-Steiger Act in 1970 creating OSHA marks the turning point for safer and healthier workplaces. Since then, through regulatory enforcement and safety training and advice, OSHA has led in driving down the number of on-the-job injuries and fatalities. However, winning passage of the Act was not easy, taking three years of fighting for and then compromising on the best way for government to help reduce injuries and death.

Almost 400,000 American workers lost their lives from 1945 to 1970. In response to a national outcry, Republican President Richard Nixon proposed a workplace safety bill in 1969 backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The U.S. Senate in 1970, led by veteran Labor Committee chair Harrison Williams of New Jersey, passed a version favored by labor unions; it was based on a proposal by Nixon’s predecessor, Democrat Lyndon Johnson. Williams was assisted by a fellow Democratic committee member, Sen. Walter Mondale of Minnesota. Though the House of Representatives, like the Senate, was nominally controlled by Democrats, real power was in a coalition of mostly southern conservative Democrats and Republicans. Their leader on workplace safety was a talented, young, conservative Republican Rep. William Steiger from Wisconsin.

Steiger was no RINO (or Republican in name only). He was the first to propose cutting taxes to promote prosperity in the form of what later came to be called the Laffer curve; his best friend in Congress was another young member, Rep. Donald Rumsfeld of Illinois; and he had a young intern named Dick Cheney on his staff.

Steiger’s bill, similar to Nixon’s, was backed by the Chamber and passed the House. The two differing bills were sent to a conference committee. Though they disagreed on exactly how to do so, the conservative Steiger and the liberal Williams went into the conference believing action needed to be taken to reduce workplace accidents and illnesses. They talked, argued, wrangled and, most importantly, listened to each other and their bills’ respective backers. Finally, a compromise was worked out, acceptable to both business and labor, led by the AFL-CIO.

When President Nixon signed the compromise measure a few days later, he said that despite disagreeing with some provisions, he believed the Williams-Steiger bill reached “the goal we all want to achieve, the protection of Americans on the job.” Since then, Republican and Democratic presidents alike have supported OSHA, as have all of Minnesota’s governors.

In 1970, Williams, Steiger, other members of Congress and the president could have refused to negotiate and hoped the next election would give their side more votes so they could get their way. Instead, they created OSHA and helped save hundreds of thousands of lives and avoid millions of injuries. They deserve our respect and thanks.

– Ken Peterson is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry.

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