Workplace fatality rate drops 65 percent in OSHA’s first four decades

Sources: Occupational Safety and Health Administration; CP staff

By Don Marsh

Upon the 40th anniversary of their agency’s establishment—April 28, 1971—OSHA officials assess benchmarks their offices and state partners have attained with the efforts of employers, unions, safety & health professionals, and workplace advocates:

  • On-the-job fatalities dropped from an estimated 14,000 in 1970 to 4,340 in 2009. That reduction accompanies a near doubling of U.S. employment, to 130 million-plus workers on more than 7.2 million worksites, during the 40-year window.
  • Reported serious workplace injury and illness rates per 100 workers have declined from 11 in 1972 to 3.6 in 2009.
  • Standards for workplace exposures, including those for trenching, machine guarding, asbestos, benzene, lead, and bloodborne pathogens have prevented countless work-related injuries, illnesses and deaths.

OSHA’s rise within the Department of Labor followed President Richard Nixon’s signing of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in December 1970. A timeline of agency standards and milestones affecting concrete plant operations and construction sites includes: 1972, Construction Safety; 1975, On-site Consultation Program for Small Businesses; 1978, Susan Harwood Training and Education Grants; 1981, Hearing Conservation; 1982, Voluntary Protection Programs; 1989, Safety & Health Program Management Guidelines, Lockout/Tagout, and Excavation and Trenching Operations; 1993, Confined Spaces; 1994, Fall Protection in Construction; 1996, Construction Scaffold Safety; 2001, Steel Erection; and, 2010, Cranes and Derricks.

The 1971-2011 timeline also references major natural disasters to which the agency responded, along with (non-transportation) accidents that led to tightening of workplace safety standards. Two timeline accidents involved concrete structures: April 23, 1987, L’Ambiance Plaza Collapse, Bridgeport, Conn., “lift slab” failure kills 28 workers; April 27, 1978, Willow Island, W.V., power plant cooling tower construction scaffold collapse claims 51, becoming the worst construction disaster in U.S. history.