Workplace Deaths Have Plummeted

1970: Richard Nixon signs legislation creating OSHA.

1970 Richard Nixon signs legislation creating OSHA.

When a fire broke out in 1911 at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York, 146 workers died. Many jumped from windows because the doors that could have saved their lives were locked to stop them from stealing. In the ensuing century, workplaces have been transformed. Since Congress created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1970, the U.S. workplace death rate has dropped 81 percent, saving half a million lives. Economic and technological changes have swept workers out of the most deadly jobs and into comparatively safer ones. New state and federal standards have outlawed corner-cutting that formerly killed employees, imposing costs on companies that don’t comply. Still, deaths from workplace injuries in the U.S. averaged 13 a day in 2012, and the number of work-related deaths—counting illnesses such as lung cancer—may be 10 times as large. Work can be far more lethal in developing countries; witness the April 2013 collapse of a facility housing garment factories in Bangladesh, which killed eight times the number who died in the Triangle fire. In many parts of the world, workplace safety is an idea whose time is yet to come.

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