Until April 1971, Americans were largely on their own when it came to workplace safety, dependent on their employers to voluntarily provide the necessary safeguards. But since it opened its doors 40 years ago today, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has provided the vital federal regulations to protect workers from injury, illness or even death on the job.
Because of this 40th anniversary, today we recognize Workers Memorial Day, to honor those who were unnecessarily killed while earning a paycheck to support their families.
If there had been no OSHA over the last four decades, we would be tragically memorializing many, many more people. From textile employees threatened by the inhalation of cotton dust, to late-night retail clerks facing a high risk of violent crime, and many more, OSHA has successfully protected workers. And as the Ranking Member of the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, I am committed to strengthening the agency and ensuring it has the tools to be even more effective in its next 40 years and beyond.
But unbelievably, the House Republican majority wants to turn back the clock to the pre-OSHA era. Their belief in small government apparently extends to those cases where government regulation clearly saves lives.
Earlier this year, the Republicans sought devastating OSHA cuts that would have crippled the agency and endangered American workers. If they had had their way, OSHA funding would have been slashed 18 percent, which would likely have triggered a 3-month furlough of all agency employees. Their proposed zeroing out of the statistics and information division would have shut down OSHA’s website.
Fortunately, the Continuing Resolution passed last month didn’t include these draconian cuts, but Republicans continue to target OSHA, and we must remain vigilant in its defense.
It’s worth mentioning also that the quality of worker protection can be directly linked to workers’ ability to bargain collectively for their rights. So defending and empowering the labor movement is a part of this struggle as well.
For all the progress of the last 40 years, we can’t afford to become complacent. Not when 12 workers still die on the job every day and 3 million more are seriously injured annually.
Now is the moment to strengthen OSHA, to bring it into the 21st century and eliminate the red tape that makes it nearly impossible for the agency to issue new regulations. Instead of rolling back protections, we need to strengthen worker safety.
That’s why I’ve introduced H.R. 190, the Protecting America’s Workers Act (PAWA), which would be the first significant amendment to the Occupational Safety and Health Act (the law that created OSHA) since its passage. PAWA would toughen criminal and civil penalties for violations of workplace safety laws. It would also strengthen whistleblower protections and expand OSHA coverage to state, county and municipal employees.
So on the occasion of OSHA’s 40th anniversary, let’s all celebrate the progress the agency has made and renew our commitment to its mission. The lives of American workers depend on it.