Until 1970, there was almost total reliance on state and local governments and the forces of the market to improve working conditions related to occupational injuries, death, and disease. For more than 50 years, state governments had attempted to inspect workplaces and to advise employers about hazards. Few of these programs, however, had adequate enforcement authority to compel abatement of dangerous conditions. In some states, no attempt was made by government to change workplace conditions, either by enforcement or by persuasion. Variations in state legislation resulted in comprehensive, strong regulation in some states (e.g., New York and Illinois) and nonexistent regulation in others (e.g., Mississippi). The doctrine of states’ rights and a tradition of state regulatory activity in the area of labor standards protected this status quo.
Another traditional approach was to trust market and private sector mechanisms to provide worker protection. Workers’ compensation insurance carriers made some attempt to improve workplace safety for economic reasons. Many carriers provided consultative service to their clients and charged lower rates to large companies that were successful in reducing injuries. Then, as well as now, insurance companies’ consultative resources are limited and are not available to all who may need them; while it may be possible to provide economic incentives to large firms by basing their premium rates on accident experience, it is not possible to provide this same incentive to small firms, which have few employees to record a statistically significant accident experience. More importantly, these economic incentives are inadequate where health problems are concerned because occupational diseases are not often diagnosed as workplace related. Occupational diseases often have complex origins; many years may elapse between exposure and the appearance of symptoms, making physicians and compensation boards reluctant to attribute the symptoms to time spent with specific employers or to the exposure to particular working conditions.1
A third approach evolved to cope with occupational safety and health problems; industry-based organizations filled the vacuum by producing guidelines for safe work practices for various types of industrial equipment and processes and for “acceptable” exposure limits to certain harmful substances. These “consensus standards” were adopted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1972 as federal standards.
Thus a long series of private, voluntary efforts and a slowly evolving pattern of government initiatives (e.g., the Walsh-Healey Act , which authorized sanctions against federal contractors who violated standards) tested a variety of approaches to improving safety and health. These experiences served as the basis for broad federal legislation. As legislators had a record of approaches that had not worked, it became clear that voluntary-compliance approaches and consensus guidelines would have to be backed by a technically experienced federal enforcement staff and that inadequate workplace safety and health efforts at the state level would have to be reshaped to meet national standards of effectiveness. The economic realities of the marketplace had overwhelmed voluntary efforts, and the weak incentives ...