FROM THE TRIANGLE FIRE TO THE BP EXPLOSION: A Short History of the Century-Long Movement for Safety and Health

After thirty years of attacks by conservative and business critics, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is starting to show more signs of life. And it’s happening none too soon. The catastrophic disaster at the BP oil rig left eleven men dead, and numerous others injured and traumatized; the 2010 explosion in West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine left twenty-nine men dead. But this is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. As David Michaels, a renowned epidemiologist and labor advocate—and, most significantly, the new head of OSHA under the Obama administration— reminds us, “these catastrophic events are powerful reminders of the risks faced by workers across the country every day. Fourteen workers die on the job each day, far from the headlines, often noted only by their families, friends, and co-workers.”1

The constant hum of deaths on construction sites and among long-distance haulers is a dangerous harbinger of what’s to come, as the captains of our shrinking industrial economy wring whatever they can from a susceptible, largely unorganized workforce. Deaths and injuries from accidents have been on a steady decline as jobs in steel and auto production, metal mining, and other heavy industries have been shipped overseas. But the ongoing incidence of long-term industrial diseases from exposure to dust, chemicals, and other toxins that are a part of high-tech industries has put new generations of American workers at risk. As Michaels points out, “every year more than four million workers are seriously injured or sickened by exposure to toxic agents.”2 Meanwhile, OSHA’s infrastructure and funding have atrophied over the past several decades.

Workers’ safety and health have always played a part in labor struggles, although they have usually been subsumed within broader campaigns for shorter hours, higher wages, and better working conditions. In recent decades, workplace safety’s importance as a serious public welfare matter seems to have faded. But at the time of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911 (well before OSHA’s establishment in 1970), there was already growing concern about safety and health in the wake of revolutionary social and economic changes in the United States. In little more than three decades, Americans had witnessed the rapid growth of cities and manufacturing centers. Speed-ups, repetitive motion tasks, exposure to chemical toxins and dusts, and unprotected machinery made the U.S. workplace among the most dangerous in the world. In response, workers, unions, middle-class reformers, muckraking journalists, and social workers created a movement that changed the nature of U.S. capitalism.3

At the beginning of the twentieth century, labor and social activists warned that the enormous wealth produced by the new industrial plants was achieved at an inordinate social cost. In 1907, journalist Arthur Reeve reported that “thousands of wage earners, men, women, and children [are] caught in the machinery of our record-breaking production and turned out cripples. Other thousands [are] killed outright.”4 Reformers of the period comparedthe end of an acrimonious picketing and public pressure operation—included the creation of a Joint Board of Sanitary Control, composed of both employers and employees. Over the course of one year, the cloakmakers’ union called twenty-eight successful “sanitary” strikes in New York, and set the stage for the public outcry that followed the tragic deaths of 146 young women in the city’s infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Union campaigns to make shop conditions more sanitary were linked to broader public health concerns, particularly the battle against infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, typhoid, and smallpox. Cleaning up the workplace and keeping the workforce healthy were seen as beneficial to both workers and the public. In 1909, three thousand New York Jewish bakers struck and, less than a year later, four thousand German bakery workers followed suit.6 In 1910, the Greater New York local of the International Union of Bakers and Confectionery Workers successfully struck to demand cleaner working conditions. Their ability to link unsanitary the toll of industrial accidents to an undeclared war.5

Labor frequently expressed its anger at such conditions by organizing strikes at dangerous or substandard workplaces. One long and dramatic example of conditions that were sub-par enough to trigger labor-management discord is the nineweek general strike of New York City cloakmakers in 1910. The under-ventilated workspaces, absence of washrooms and clean toilets, and general unsanitary conditions promoted the spread of tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. The settlement that was reached—at the end of an acrimonious picketing and public pressure operation—included the creation of a Joint Board of Sanitary Control, composed of both employers and employees. Over the course of one year, the cloakmakers’ union called twenty-eight successful “sanitary” strikes in New York, and set the stage for the public outcry that followed the tragic deaths of 146 young women in the city’s infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.

Union campaigns to make shop conditions more sanitary were linked to broader public health concerns, particularly the battle against infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, typhoid, and smallpox. Cleaning up the workplace and keeping the workforce healthy were seen as beneficial to both workers and the public. In 1909, three thousand New York Jewish bakers struck and, less than a year later, four thousand German bakery workers followed suit.6 In 1910, the Greater New York local of the International Union of Bakers and Confectionery Workers successfully struck to demand cleaner working conditions. Their ability to link unsanitary working conditions to public health gave their strike tremendous appeal and power.7 Frances Perkins (who had served for two years as secretary of the New York City Consumers’ League, and as U.S. Secretary of Labor during the New Deal era) condemned the system of home work—tenement-based clothing production by underpaid piece-workers—as “a menace to the health of the community and the health of the worker.”8

The question of occupational safety and health was part and parcel of a larger movement to reform American society. And this movement produced results—in little more than two decades after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, we saw the establishment of a meaningful federal Department of Labor, active women’s and children’s bureaus, the reinforcement and subsidization of state-level factory inspection systems, and the early beginnings of local health departments’ attention to occupational safety and health. We also saw the passage of the first significant child and women’s labor legislation, as well as a host of specific state acts regulating working conditions in tanneries, bakeries, foundries, and numerous other industries. Also, for the first time, there was a serious attempt to organize a more reliable method for collecting statistics on occupational injuries and deaths. Finally, it must be pointed out that in 1900 no state in the country had a workers’ compensation law on the books—but by 1915, every highly industrialized state had passed an act for some form of workers’ compensation.

A Retreat from Reform

If the first two decades of the twentieth century were dominated by social reformers and labor advocates, the 1920s saw a resurgence of corporate power. Major corporations, such as U.S. Steel and International Harvester, sought to gain more control over the safety and health movement by organizing industries into trade associations and establishing groups like the National Safety Council. Employers attempted to hide the impact of industrial exposures and dangers from members of the workforce. Company doctors served their employers by identifying workers who were ill or poisoned on the job—which often resulted in those workers being fired or laid off. During the 1930s, a revived labor movement focused on campaigns for union recognition and averting layoffs and wage cuts, rather than health and safety. While certain industrial unions—such as the United Mine Workers; the Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers; and the United Auto Workers—pressed for safety and health, during the period following World War II, an implicit labor-management “accord” virtually eliminated issues of workers’ safety and health from the formal agenda in contract negotiations. In exchange for higher wages and health insurance, responsibility for safety and health on the job was ceded to managers who were determined to regain and maintain control over the work process.9

Although the labor movement of the 1960s was viewed as conservative—on account of its identification with the military and blue-collar disdain for the youth movement of the day— there were indications of a more activist strain within it. It was the Vietnam War that placed new pressures for production on American industry, resulting in speed-ups and long hours of required overtime. The subsequent increase in the number of industrial accidents, and the growing militancy of social activists, laid the groundwork for rank-and-file attention to issues of health and safety.10 In 1966 and 1967, the number of workplace health and safety-related strikes reached a decade-long high, and declining productivity and an increasingly militant labor force spelled trouble for business.11

As the 1960s saw a trend toward greater federal involvement in environmental protection, various sectors of labor and consumer activism joined together. Key to the mobilization of labor around safety and health was Tony Mazzocchi of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW).12

Mazzocchi’s activism arose from his intimate knowledge of the worsening situation that the majority of the chemical workforce was facing in the 1960s.13 Unlike the steel mills, mines, and foundries—where the dangers from accidents, extraordinary heat, dusty air, and odious fumes were fairly obvious—the new chemical plants looked clean and modern. He lamented the conspiracy of silence that seemed to exist amongst the government, organized labor, and industry, all of whom failed to protect workers from (or even inform them of) dangerous chemicals. Not only were workers exposed to known toxins—thousands of new untested and unregulated chemicals were regularly introduced into the environment where workers labored. Mazzocchi himself argued strongly for an alliance between labor and the growing environmental and consumer movements. He worked, formally and informally, with such activists as Ralph Nader, Barry Commoner, and Sidney Wolfe from Public Citizen. But fear that strong environmental regulations would cost workers their jobs undermined the activists’ efforts.

Mazzocchi argued that the massive problems in the nation’s plants and mines could not be addressed by industry alone, as they had in the past. Nor could the union movement depend upon scientists and technicians whose loyalties lay with the industries which hired them.14 Mazzocchi knew that workers were the true repositories of information about unhealthful workplace practices. Their active participation and testimony would be crucial in creating an incentive for government or industry to provide the necessary protection.15 He helped mobilize hundreds of thousands of workers and their unions to push for federal legislation that ultimately resulted in the passage of the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969 and the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. These acts created the Mine Safety and Health Administration in the Department of the Interior, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the Department of Labor, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) within the National Institutes of Health. Never before had the federal government established an agency with a mandate to protect the nation’s workers.

Although the political impetus for the Occupational Safety and Health Act originated among labor activists and the Democratic Party, the Nixon administration quickly embraced the effort as part of its more general attempt to bring white working-class Americans into a new Republican coalition. But Nixon wanted a bill that had weak federal enforcement provisions.16 Even so, when the bill went to the Senate-House conference committee—which was closed to the public in the early 1970s—Nixon opposed its passage, still holding out for a weaker bill. The prospects for passage seemed dim. Mazzocchi remembers standing outside the committee room and having Walter Mondale come out to say that the Democrats did not have the votes to pass it.17 But then Nixon called down to the Hill and told the Republican leadership to bring the bill to a vote.

In the aftermath of construction workers’ assault on anti-war demonstrators along lower Broadway near Wall Street, Nixon saw the opportunity to steal traditionally Democratic blue-collar votes by supporting the Occupational Safety and Health Act.18 The bill passed in the waning days of 1970 “with varying degrees of enthusiasm” from business and labor.19 The Occupational Safety and Health Act was groundbreaking because it established the principle that workers had a right to a safe and healthful workplace and that the federal government had a responsibility to ensure this through inspection, regulation, and standard setting. By authorizing the imposition of fines—and even prison terms (a rarely-used punishment)—on managers and owners of renegade industries, the Act brought an end to the longstanding notion that the workplace was immune to federal control.

The Act guaranteed workers’ access to information—that had previously been deemed proprietary trade secrets—about the substances they worked with and the possible harmful results from exposure to these chemicals. One of its most important features was the rejection of the chemical industry’s demand (among others) that the cost of protection must automatically be taken into account as a standard-setting factor. The act held that OSHA should “set the standard which most adequately assures, to the extent feasible, on the basis of the best available evidence, that no employee will suffer material impairment of health or functional capacity even if such employee has regular exposure to the hazard dealt with by such standard for the period of his working life.”20 Over the next several years, industry would successfully make much of the phrase “to the extent feasible” to reassert the argument that economic costs must be considered in any occupational regulation.

OSHA’s reputation as an activist agency stems almost completely from its activities with regard to a few substances. Right after its establishment, OSHA produced standards for asbestos and thirteen carcinogens. Dr. Eula Bingham—an industrial toxicologist at the Kettering Institute and the University of Cincinnati who had long been sympathetic to labor’s health concerns—was appointed as OSHA’s assistant secretary in 1977. During her tenure, the agency instituted standards for acrylonitrile, DBCP, arsenic, cotton dust, lead, and benzene (until the standards for benzene were ultimately suspended by the Supreme Court). But this was just a tiny fraction of the number of standards recommended to OSHA by its sister agency, NIOSH.21 With the movement of older heavy industries to less developed countries, the focus of OSHA and NIOSH began to identify the emerging health and safety issues—such as repetitive stress injuries and ergonomics—of the new office- and computer-centered workplace. Further, the agencies focused more of their efforts on identifying diseases and dangers associated with exposure to new chemicals used in the “clean” high-tech worlds of Silicon Valley and nanotechnology.

The Business Community’s Counter-Revolution

From the 1970s onward, as Michaels documented in Doubt Is Their Product, 22 industry developed a variety of tactics to undercut OSHA and the Environmental Protection Agency. Industry argued over what constituted good science, shifted the debate from health to economic costs, challenged all statements considered damaging, and refused to reveal what it knew about the cancer-causing potential of vinyl chloride—which is the mainstay of the polyvinyl chloride plastic (PVC) used in computers, shower curtains, bottles, and thousands of other common consumer products. Business recruited academics to scholarly justify its positions. Data from think tanks and academic institutes funded by industry were used to counter the champions of greater regulation. By the end of the 1970s, for “every horror story about corporate irresponsibility that had circulated at the beginning of the decade… there was a matching horror story about the shortcomings of government regulation.”23 Even the most principled and vigorous government officials were stymied.

The Reagan years brought a virtual cessation of OSHA’s standard-setting and regulatory activities, ushering in a thirty-year demonization of the agency. In 1981, Thorne Auchter, a construction industry executive, replaced Eula Bingham as OSHA’s assistant secretary and set about to undermine the standards set during the Carter administration. Auchter quickly joined with industry in attacking the very regulations and mandate that he was supposed to uphold. He even “withdrew [OSHA’s own] booklets on cotton dust, acrylonitrile, health and safety rights, and vinyl chloride because they were too one-sided.”24 More than one hundred projects were dropped in 1981 and eight standards were “recalled or weakened.”25 By 1981, NIOSH had recommended over 250 standards, but OSHA had only acted on twenty-one of them.26 Industry’s concerns about the costs of regulations replaced Bingham’s emphasis—on finding the lowest feasible level that would protect workers from toxic substances—as the most important criteria in standard setting.

This pattern of inactivity—based upon the fear of litigation from industry and a lack of support from Congress and the executive branch—was reversed briefly during the early years of the Clinton administration. But, even then, OSHA focused most of its energies on preparing one major standard—for ergonomics (the fitting of workplace conditions and equipment to workers)—that Clinton approved just before he left office. Within weeks of George W. Bush’s residency in the White House, Congress abolished the only standard OSHA had established in over a decade.

Despite the attempts to dismantle the regulatory apparatus, the workplace today is obviously much safer than it was at the time of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Miners, railroad workers, construction workers, and others are far less likely to die on the job today than they were a century ago. Yet the contemporary American workplace is far from safe. Although we have shipped needlework, smelting, and metal mining overseas, every year nearly five thousand U.S. workers still die from accidents on the job and thousands of others succumb to debilitating illnesses, such as silicosis, lead poisoning, cancer, and heart disease linked to toxic-material exposure.

Also, the issue of safety and health is only growing, as globalization has led to massive human exploitation throughout the world’s emerging economies. Today, we learn of the millions of women, men, and children who work in near slave-like conditions in Asia and Latin America, producing cheap sneakers, clothing, computer parts, and other mainstays of our consumer economy. Although there are a few cross-border campaigns organized around health and safety issues—such as the Environmental Health Coalition that focuses on conditions of work and community in Southern California and Northern Mexico, and other groups that are trying to bring attention to the exploitation of children and women in India, Vietnam, and China—for the most part, Americans turn a blind eye to the horrendous working conditions that make our lifestyles possible.

Today, just as a century ago, foreign workers and immigrants bear a grossly disproportionate share of this burden. If the recent change in OSHA’s leadership and these cross-border campaigns are any indication, we may be witnessing a recommitment to the traditions represented by Alice Hamilton, Harriet Hardy, and Tony Mazzocchi—physicians and labor leaders who were pioneers in the battle to protect workers’ health.



1. Remarks by David Michaels, Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission (annual judicial conference, Charleston, SC, September 14, 2010), available at oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_ table=SPEECHES&p_id=2299 (accessed November 5th, 2010). 2. David Michaels, “OSHA at Forty: New Challenges and New Directions,” July 19, 2010, available at (accessed August 24, 2010.) 3. David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, eds., Dying for Work: Workers’ Safety and Health in Twentieth-Century America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987). 4. Arthur B. Reeve, “The Death Roll of Indus- try,” Charities and the Commons 17(1907): 791. 5. See “Slaughter by Accident,” Outlook 78 (October 8, 1904): 359. 6. “A Strike for Clean Bread,” Survey 24(June 18, 1910): 483-488. 7. “Investigations Have Disclosed the Fact That Unhealthy and Poisonous Bread Is Made in Non-Union Bake Shops,” Woman’s Label League Journal(June 1913): 13. 8. Frances Perkins, quoted in New York State’s Second Report of the Factory Investigat- ing Commission, Volume IV (1913), 1576-1577. 9. Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, “More than Economism: The Politics of Workers’ Safety and Health, 1932-1947,” Milbank Quarterly 64, no. 3 (1986): 331-354; See also Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle, eds., The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-1980 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989). 10. Charles Noble, Liberalism at Work: The Rise and Fall of OSHA (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986), 70. Coal miners working with the Black Lung Association, and physicians such as Loren Kerr, also demanded improvements in working conditions. Compensation was perhaps the most important action around safety and health in a decade. 11. Ibid., 70. 12. Les Leopold, The Man Who Hated Work and Loved Labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi (White River Jct., VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007). 13. Tony Mazzocchi, interview by David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, January 26, 2001, New York City. 14. Tony Mazzocchi, “Foreword,” in “Proceedings,” Hazards of the Industrial Environment (a conference sponsored by District 8 Council, Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union, Kenilworth, NJ, March 29, 1969), 6. 15. Ray Davidson, Peril on the Job: A Study of Hazards in the Chemical Industries (Washing- ton, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1970), 184-185. 16. Noble, Liberalism at Work, 93-96. 17. Tony Mazzocchi, interview by Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, January 25, 2001. 18. Ibid. 19. See David Vogel, Fluctuating Fortunes: The Political Power of Business in America (New York: Basic Books, 1989), 86. 20. Occupational Safety and Health Act, section 6(b)(5); See also Noble, Liberalism at Work, 93-96. 21. David P. McCaffrey, OSHA and the Politics of Health Regulation (New York: Plenum Press, 1982), 132-137. 22.David Michaels, Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). 23. David Vogel, The Market for Virtue: The Potential And Limits of Corporate Social Responsibility (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2005), 202. 24. Noble, Liberalism at Work, 193. 25. Ibid. 26. McCaffrey, OSHA and the Politics of Health Regulation

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