Yet, as excruciating as this situation is, for many Americans, it’s not altogether new. Risking human health and safety for the sake of the economy has long been the norm — but this history should give us pause before returning to the hazardous pre-coronavirus status quo.
Throughout American history, people have been compelled to work regardless of the consequences to their health. This has included first and foremost, enslaved Africans, who performed backbreaking labor — often at the hand of a whip — but also coal workers facing explosively dangerous work environments and more recently the toxic labor performed by immigrant workers manufacturing electronics parts amid Silicon Valley’s rise.
In these and countless other cases, a political and legal system that prioritizes the economic gains of a relatively small group of primarily white, male business owners has meant corporate profits almost always trump human health.
Yet, it doesn’t have to be that way, as past reformers have demonstrated.
On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village in New York caught fire, killing 146 workers, the youngest, two 14-year-old girls, Kate Leone and Rosaria “Sara” Maltese. At the time, the factory was one of the most notorious sweatshops in the city, known for paying workers low wages and charging them for the needles, thread and electricity their machines used.
Indeed, a year before the fire, female workers from the factory had participated in a massive strike, known as “the Uprising of 20,000,” protesting conditions in the industry. The fire added further fuel to these reform efforts. During the fire a number of stairways and exits had been blocked, a common practice used to prevent workers from taking breaks. Subsequently, female unionists helped lead the fight for livable wages and safer workplaces, including stricter fire codes.
By the mid-20th century, a strong labor movement built upon their advocacy was fighting for improved workplace health and safety measures. It won important legislative victories such as child labor regulation and shorter workweeks.
But state laws frequently undermined these gains. In states such as Ohio and Texas, for example, laws allowed for safety inspectors to enter a workplace only after an accident had taken place. In Michigan, inspectors even needed a court order to compel employers to correct a code violation. This situation reflected the strong influence business had over state and local legislators, often playing different states against one another by threatening to leave a state if it enacted safety regulations deemed too strict.
To rectify this, reformers pushed for a national occupational health and safety act.
Led by the Industrial Union Department of the AFL-CIO union, the movement gained important backing from the scientific community, including physicians and biochemists, who began to publish studies documenting the negative effects that industrial chemicals and metallic and fibrous airborne particles, introduced as part of the chemical revolution, had on workers — and society more broadly. But even with this medical research in hand, Congress hesitated to act.
In January 1968, under pressure from labor activism, the Johnson White House drafted a federal health and safety law. According to one labor historian, the Johnson administration viewed occupational health and safety as a low-cost issue to win public support amid growing criticism of the war in Vietnam.
Yet, under heavy pressure from business, which resisted any and all proposals for federal inspections and lobbied for a limited program that left enforcement to the states, congressional leaders were unable to agree on a bill.
Things changed when rank-and-file members of the United Mine Workers of America, fueled by anger about the government’s refusal to compensate miners who had contracted black-lung disease, staged wildcat strikes that brought coal mining in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia to a halt for more than three weeks in February 1969. This prodded Congress to enact federal compensation for victims of black-lung disease. The strikes also put pressure on the federal government to pass comprehensive occupational health and safety legislation.
In 1970, this labor militancy, along with increased public support, persuaded President Richard Nixon to sign the Occupational Safety and Health Act into law following complex negotiations in Congress. Nixon did so, however, only after securing provisions intended to dilute the effects the law would have on business autonomy and profits.
The act created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which would have the authority to establish and enforce federal workplace health and safety standards. But in part because of Nixon’s efforts and business lobbying, the bill was not as strong as it might have been. During negotiations, labor advocated for OSHA inspectors to be empowered to immediately shut down a plant if they determined workers to be in imminent danger. But instead, under the final law, companies have 15 days to appeal a citation.
Since OSHA’s passage in 1970, the agency has seen its capacity for inspections and enforcement wither as part of a broader cutback in federal protections for worker and consumer health and safety amid growing bipartisan support for deregulation. In March 2019, the National Employment Law Project reported OSHA had the lowest number of health and safety inspectors in the agency’s history at the same time that workplace fatality investigations were at a 10-year high.
OSHA also has limitations with regards to whom the law protects. Public-sector workers employed by state and/or local government in 24 states remain uncovered by OSHA. Nor does OSHA apply to self-employed contractors. This was the situation that existed before the coronavirus forced many to risk their health to work.
Going forward, any premature return to “normal” will only put more people at risk. Yet, resisting this urge will not be easy. That’s because, as history has shown, implementing the necessary measures to protect the health and safety of workers faces numerous challenges from government and business. Instead, it will take organizing on the part of workers and their allies to ensure human well-being is placed ahead of profit.