Occupational health services in the United States have always been divided in function and control. The extent to which government at any level should make rules affecting working conditions has been a matter of continuing controversy. Furthermore, there has been an uneasy tension between the state and federal governments about which should take primary responsibility for preventive services based primarily upon laws governing workplace safety and health. Monetary compensation for workplace injury and illness has primarily been the responsibility of private insurance companies, and safety and health education, with only recent changes, has been left largely to unions and corporations.
It was at the state level that the first governmental effort to regulate working conditions took place. Occupational safety and health laws began to be enacted by states in the 1800s when increasing levels of industrial production began to be accompanied by high accident rates. Pennsylvania enacted the first coal mine inspection act in 1869, and Massachusetts was the first state to pass a factory inspection law in 1877.
By 1900 the more industrialized states had some laws in place regulating some workplace hazards. Early in the twentieth century, New York and Wisconsin led the nation in developing more comprehensive occupational safety and health programmes.
Most states adopted worker’s compensation laws mandating private no-fault insurance between 1910 and 1920. A few states, such as Washington, provide a state-run system allowing the collection of data and the targeting of research goals. The compensation laws varied widely from state to state, were generally not well enforced, and omitted many workers, such as agricultural workers, from coverage. Only railway, longshore and harbour workers, and federal employees have national worker’s compensation systems.
In the first decades of the twentieth century, the federal role in occupational safety and health was largely restricted to research and consultation. In 1910 the Federal Bureau of Mines was established in the Department of the Interior to investigate accidents; consult with industry; conduct safety and production research; and provide training in accident prevention, first aid and mine rescue. The Office of Industrial Hygiene and Sanitation was created in the Public Health Service in 1914 to conduct research and assist states in solving occupational safety and health problems. It was located in Pittsburgh because of its close association with the Bureau of Mines and its focus on injuries and illnesses in the mining and steel industries.
In 1913 a separate Department of Labor was established; the Bureau of Labor Standards and the Interdepartmental Safety Council were organized in 1934. In 1936, the Department of Labor began to assume a regulatory role under the Walsh-Healey Public Contracts Act, which required certain federal contractors to meet minimum safety and health standards. Enforcement of these standards was often carried out by the states with varying degrees of effectiveness, under cooperative agreements with the Department of Labor. There were many who felt that this patchwork of state and federal laws was not effective in preventing workplace injuries and illnesses.
The Modern Era
The first comprehensive federal occupational safety and health laws were passed in 1969 and 1970. In November 1968, an explosion in Farmington, West Virginia, killed 78 coalminers, providing impetus to the demands of the miners for tougher federal legislation. In 1969, the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was passed, which set mandatory health and safety standards for underground coal mines. The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 combined and expanded the 1969 Coal Mine Act with other earlier mining laws and created the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to establish and enforce safety and health standards for all mines in the United States.
It was not a single disaster, but a steady rise in injury rates during the 1960s that helped spur passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. An emerging environmental consciousness and a decade of progressive legislation secured the new omnibus act. The law covers the majority of workplaces in the United States. It established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in the Department of Labor to set and enforce federal workplace safety and health standards. The law was not a complete break from the past in that it contained a mechanism by which states could administer their own OSHA programmes. The Act also established the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), in what is now the Department of Health and Human Services, to conduct research, train safety and health professionals and develop recommended safety and health standards.
In the United States today, occupational safety and health services are the divided responsibility of a number of different sectors. In large companies, services for treatment, prevention and education are primarily provided by corporate medical departments. In smaller companies, these services are usually provided by hospitals, clinics or physicians’ offices.
Toxicological and independent medical evaluations are provided by individual practitioners as well as academic and public sector clinics. Finally, governmental entities provide for the enforcement, research funding, education and standard setting mandated by occupational safety and health laws.
This complex system is described in the following articles. Drs. Bunn and McCunney from the Mobil Oil Corporation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, respectively, report on corporate services. Penny Higgins, RN, BS, of Northwest Community Healthcare in Arlington Heights, Illinois, delineates the hospital-based programmes. The academic clinic activities are reviewed by Dean Baker, MD, MPH, the Director of the University of California, Irvine’s Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health. Dr. Linda Rosenstock, Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Sharon L. Morris, Assistant Chair for Community Outreach of the University of Washington’s Department of Environmental Health, summarize government activities at the federal, state and local levels. LaMont Byrd, the Director of Health and Safety for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, AFL-CIO, describes the various activities provided to the membership of this international union by his office.
This division of responsibilities in occupational health often leads to overlapping, and in the case of workers’ compensation, inconsistent requirements and services. This pluralistic approach is both the strength and weakness of the system in the United States. It promotes multiple approaches to problems, but it can confuse all but the most sophisticated user. It is a system that often is in flux, with the balance of power shifting back and forth among the key players—private industry, labour unions, and state or federal governments.