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Enactment of OSHA required ingenious compromises and strategies.

Enactment of OSHA required ingenious compromises and strategies JAMES D. HODGSON

At my confirmation hearings, the committee chairman was all business. From behind his walnut barrier, Senator Ralph Yarborough of Texas fixed me with an appraising eye, bade me welcome, and shot a direct question: "Mr. Hodgson, if you are confirmed as this Nation's 12th Secretary of Labor, is there anything in particular you will seek to accomplish?"

I was ready for the question. "I hope to do something to improve the environment of the American workplace," I responded.

In retrospect, I shudder at my phrasing. After only 16 months in Washington I had obviously acquired an advanced case of "bureauspeak" disease. A straightforward answer would have found me saying, "I will work for a new job safety law." For that is exactly what I had in mind.

These reflections retrace the events that hooked me into pressing for Federal action in the job health and safety sphere and recall the strategies I used to bring about enactment of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA). Although OSHA has been roundly condemned in many quarters, I regard its passage as the most satisfying step forward -- both for American industry and its more than 100 million workers -- that occurred during my tenure at the U.S Department of Labor. I certainly put a lot of myself into it.

When I arrived at the Labor Department as Under Secretary, I could not claim to have had a personal passion for health and safety legislation. I had come from the aircraft industry, which had outstanding job safety records. Because lives depended directly on the safety of our product, everyone in the air transportation industry was intensely safety conscious -- management, unions, engineers -- everyone. A remarkably safe workplace was the result.

With this background shaping my views, I had little reason to believe safety legislation ranked as a priority for Federal regulation. It took less than 3 months in Washington to open my eyes and reverse my view.

This is what happened: In early 1969, when Secretary George Shultz and I suddenly found ourselves front and center in the Department of Labor, two pesky safety issues awaited our immediate attention. A new set of safety standards to the Public Contract (Walsh-Healey) Act of 1936 had been issued in a storm of protest, with "overkill" and "arbitrary" among the milder epithets applied. This act, among other matters, prescribes health and safety standards for Federal construction projects.

At the same time, from deep in Utah's new uranium mines came critical rumblings. Some mysterious radioactive compounds were being losed in mineshafts -- compounds suspected of having a deleterious effect on human lungs. Action was required.

Eventually, we solved both of these issues. but in the process, I underwent a crash course in American workplace health and safety. After poring over a myriad of tracts and texts, reviewing reams of recorded data, soliciting the views of scores of professionals, and sending an assistant to Europe to study safety measures there, two points struck me.

First, many -- far too many -- American industries had deplorable, even inexcusable, job health and safety performance. Second, those industries with good performance had uniformly installed sound standards and instilled positive attitudes on the subject. The conclusion was almost inescapable. Here was an area where Federal attention could make a difference -- a difference that often involved lives. Sadly, more American lives were than being lost in the workplace than in the Vietnam conflict. And the trend was worsening.

So, what to do? Should we offer legislation?

One Department of Labor expert of long experience suggested legislation would be a waste of time. "Forget it," he counseled, "the last Administration tried it and got shot down. . . industry is dead set against it."

Coming from industry, I was skeptical. So I carried my inquiries into corporate mahogany row.

"I'm told American management opposes job safely legislation," I began. Then I demanded, "I want to know why." The answer came back loud and clear.

"We are not antisafety. We simply did not like several features found in the previous bill."

So I compiled a list of industry objections. Among other things, industry considered the earlier bill faulty because:

It would "junk" a number of fully proven health and safety laws then existing at the State level.

It would give the Labor Department power to play all roles in a safety case -- from investigator and prosecutor to judge and jury.

It would install enforcement procedures believed to be punitive rather than remedial.

There were other reasons but, importantly, from no source did I hear that the Federal Government should stay out of the job health and safety arena, nor did anyone question the need for better health and safety standards in the American workplace.

So outright resistance by industry was not a problem. The solution seemed to lie in fashioning a bill that would produce results without giving industry the feeling that the "Feds were bent on a power grab."

To do this, we sought ideas on health and safety issues from professionals, unions, industries, and legislators. We created a broad-based advisory council. One of our basic tenets for drafting a workable act was to be as broadly consultative as possible.

After several weeks, we had a rough draft. With a bit of innocent pride, I sent it to Patrick Moynihan, then head of the White House Domestic Council. Back it came with a message: "Where are the megathoughts? Reach a little!"

I had to admit Moynihan was right. Our first version had been strictly a standard "meat and potatoes" presentation, a serving of only the basics. It needed some forward-thinking ideas to whet congressional appetites.

So we expanded our exploratory consultations. Senator Jacob Javits of New York provided us astute counsel on how to expand the health component of the bill. Howard Pyle, head of the National Safety Council, favored us with practical suggestions. A recognized health and safety expert, William Haddon, injected creative perspective.

About this time, President Richard M. Nixon was preparing his 1970 state of the Nation speech. A memo arrived from the White House asking, "Anything you want included in the speech?"

You bet! I wrote a strong paragraph on the need for health and safety legislation. Well, we didn't get a paragraph, but we did get a sentence. That was enough, for then we knew we had the blessing of the President. After a few more weeks of diligent revisions, our proud health and safety bill was eagerly tossed into the congressional hopper.

Its reception, I'm afraid, resembled a massive yawn. Organized labor favored a competing bill, which we believed repeated faulty features of the former proposal. Industry management still seemed wary.

In retrospect, I realize I had two responsibilities: first, to persuade management that our bill was fair and, second, to persuade the unions that the bill they favored was a loser.

To win management over, my first move was to get invited to a convention of top industrial executives at the Chamber of Commerce headquarters in Washington, DC. There I "tub-thumped" at length on the need for a bill and explained how our bill dealth fairly with industry's previous objections. The ensuing applause could not be called deafening, but it was adequate. If we could hold to our basic principles, industry would, at least, not oppose our bill.

To fortify our stance with professionals in the working world, we bombarded safety engineers throughout the country with pleas for support. Gradually, they took our side. To ensure that State governments would not block our efforts, I explained our bill at a Governors' conference in San Francisco and got a good reception.

However, organized labor's perference for a competing will was a tough barrier to surmount. Labor did not actually oppose our bill. The unions merely preferred another one which we believed was flawed.

With competing health and safety bills dead-locked and stalled in congressional committees, we needed to get things moving. So I did something I have never liked to do. At the Steelworkers convention in Atlantic City, I announced at a news conference that I would recommend presidential veto of the opposing bill should it clear the Congress. This tactic is hardly a route to personal popularity, but I believed it was needed to stimulate action. Happily, it did.

Faced with a possible prospect of no health and safety bill at all, interested congressmen now rallied support for legislation that would at least resemble our bill. Efforts by Labor Committee members William Hathaway of Maine and the Late William Steiger of Wisconsin got things moving. At the Labor Department, Under Secretary Larry Silberman picked up the ball. Day after day, he prowled congressional offices, cajoling the uncommitted and devising ingenious compromises. With incomparable tenacity, Silberman kept the ball rolling forward.

The health and safety bill slowly wound its tortuous way through committees, constantly being reshaped and refined, and onto the floor.

Then one day it was passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate!! A comprehensive health and safety bill was on its way to the White House for the President's signature.

Should I recommend the President sign it? At best, the final bill was only a first cousin of the one the administration had originally proposed. Nonetheless, it contained the needed esentials. I endorsed it. The President signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act into law on December 29, 1970.

Later, in a celebration ceremony at the Labor Department with many notables looking on, I got carried away. "This OSHA bill," I trumpted, "is an important a milestone for the American worker as the Fair Labor Standards Act or the Labor-Management Relations Act."

On second thought, maybe my elation was not that far off the mark. Today, OSHA'S influence is felt in the American workplace. Clearly the act has provided a sharp escalation of attention and priority for industrial health and safety. However, it has not been without its glitches and detractors. This troubles me not. Despite its critics, OSHA is a worthwhile measure with a worthy purpose. I am glad to have had a part in its birth.

"...a worthwhile measure with a worthy purpose...."

James D. Hodgson served as Secretary of Labor during 1970-73.

PHOTO: James D. Hodgson
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Title Annotation:Reflections of Eight Former Secretaries; Occupational Safety and Health Act
Author:Hodgson, James D.
Publication:Monthly Labor Review
Date:Feb 1, 1988
Previous Article:Humanitarian initiatives during the 1960's.
Next Article:A benchmark of progress: 1973-75.

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