Fifty Years of OSHA

Contributor: Doug Parker, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health

This article was originally published in the Spring 2022 issue of VPPPA’s quarterly magazine, the Leader.

Fifty-two years ago, a new paradigm emerged for America’s workplaces. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 was passed, making way for the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1971. From that point on, a safe workplace was the right of every worker. Since its creation, OSHA has helped transform workplaces in ways that have significantly reduced occupational fatalities, injuries, and illnesses.

In its initial decade, OSHA issued the first federal workplace health and safety standards. The agency’s first standard provided worker protections from asbestos, followed by health standards for lead, carcinogens, cotton dust, and construction safety standards.

In its second decade, OSHA issued standards to give workers the right to know which chemicals they may be exposed to and require employers to provide workers and their doctors with medical and exposure records. During the 1980s, OSHA also created the first of its cooperative programs – the Voluntary Protection Program. OSHA’s cooperative programs provide businesses, labor groups and other organizations the opportunity to work with the agency to improve workplace health and safety.

During subsequent decades, OSHA issued new standards on testing and certifying the safety of workplace equipment, and worker protections from hazardous energy, combustible grain dust, trenching, and noise hazards. New and stronger standards addressed falls, bloodborne pathogens and toxic substances. Workers in confined spaces, longshoring and marine terminals, and laboratories also gained stronger protections. The agency also introduced safety and health training at its OSHA Education Centers.

Shortly after the turn of the new century, the response and recovery efforts following the 9/11 terrorist attacks shaped how OSHA and the federal government responded to subsequent disasters or events. The 2000s also saw new standards to protect construction workers in steel erection and prevent exposure to hexavalent chromium.

In its fifth decade, OSHA issued standards for silica dust, beryllium, and confined spaces, and the classification and labeling of work-related chemicals. The agency also launched several initiatives to address serious workplace issues, including fall prevention, youth safety, heat illness, trench safety, and suicide prevention.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, OSHA’s mission is as important now as it has ever been in the agency’s 50-year history. Workers can and are still getting sick from COVID-19 and OSHA must continue working to protect them, even when the public conversation about the virus may be shifting. The agency has worked expeditiously to help protect workers from exposure to the coronavirus, from issuing guidance documents to responding to complaints and performing investigations of worker exposures to COVID-19 hazards. The agency is using available tools while it finalizes a permanent Healthcare Standard and continues work on an infectious disease standard to ensure it is better prepared for the next outbreak.

OSHA is also focused on addressing work-related heat illness. The dangers of heat are only getting worse, particularly for workers of color who disproportionately make up the populations of employees who are exposed to high levels of heat. OSHA is taking aggressive action to protect workers from the impacts of the climate crisis and dangers of working in heat. OSHA has taken steps to deal with rising heat illnesses and fatalities by implementing a heat enforcement initiative in 2021. This initiative is in addition to OSHA’s ongoing heat illness campaign. OSHA also has plans to issue a national emphasis program on heat.

Meaningful engagement with underserved communities is another key priority of the administration. All workers—no matter their gender or age, the color of their skin, the language they speak, or their citizenship status—has the right to be healthy and safe at their job. OSHA is committed to making sure that every worker knows about their rights and has the required training and protections they need and deserve. Workers must also be and feel encouraged to speak up about issues without fear of retaliation.

Another area of focus is ensuring the agency has the resources and staffing necessary to carry out its mission. OSHA has been aggressively hiring senior leaders, compliance safety and health officers, and whistleblower investigators. Strong enforcement is always going to be an integral part of the Occupational Safety and Health Act and OSHA will use all available tools to hold accountable employers who disregard their obligation to provide workers a safe workplace.

Enforcement is one mechanism for achieving OSHA’s mission. The agency also relies on its cooperative relationships with employers and encourages them to go beyond compliance with OSHA standards. OSHA supports recognition for employers who model effective safety and health programs and encourages them to communicate with their peers the importance and benefits of robust safety and health management programs with strong worker participation. Compliance is a good starting point, but every workplace can better protect workers by making health and safety a core value.  

From issuing and enforcing workplace health and safety standards to extensive compliance assistance to help employers keep their employees safe, and whistleblower protections for workers who raise their voice to protect themselves and others, workplace conditions have improved dramatically over the last half century because of the efforts of OSHA and its partners.

As OSHA wraps up its first 50 years, at the core of its work is the fundamental right for all workers to be protected on the job and empowered to speak up about unsafe conditions. The agency is focused on expanding outreach, building on existing relationships, and developing new partnerships to ensure that every worker has the protections they need.

In half a century, OSHA has made great progress toward its mission. As the agency looks ahead to the next 50 years, it will continue working hard until every worker is able to go home to their families healthy and safe at the end of each day.

About the Author

Douglas L. Parker was sworn in as Assistant Secretary of Labor on November 3, 2021. He previously served in the Obama Administration as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy in the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, and was a member of the Biden-Harris transition team focused on worker health and safety issues. He also held positions as a senior policy advisor and special assistant at the Department of Labor. He most recently served as chief of California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA), a position he held since 2019. Prior to his appointment to Cal/OSHA, Mr. Parker was executive director of Worksafe, an Oakland, California-based legal services provider.

Before serving in the Obama Administration, Mr. Parker was a partner at the law firm Mooney, Green, Saindon, Murphy and Welch in Washington, DC. He began his legal career as a staff attorney at the United Mine Workers of America. Prior to law school, Mr. Parker worked in the private sector as a sales and marketing director, in communications for the Democratic National Committee, and was a staff assistant for the late Senator Paul Wellstone. Mr. Parker earned a J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law and a B.A. in history from James Madison University. He is married and has two daughters. Mr. Parker is originally from Bluefield, West Virginia, and grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia.

Learn more about Douglas Parker and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration at