In 1970, with a workforce of about 83 million, an estimated 14,000 workers were killed on the job, averaging about 38 deaths a day. That year Congress enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and it worked to reduce the carnage. During the 1980-89 period, 63,589 workers in the United States died from occupational injuries, an average of 17.4 deaths per day and 6,359 per year. Since the 1980s, on-the-job fatalities have fallen by more than 30%, to 4,340 in 2009, or 11.9 deaths per day (with a workforce almost twice as large as in 1970). While still far too many deaths, the improvement is a remarkable achievement that saves thousands of families from tragedy, grief, and financial loss.
This achievement does not result from the economy’s shift away from manufacturing, though indeed, we have far fewer manufacturing jobs today than in the 1980s. Surprisingly, manufacturing is not especially dangerous: the fatality rate in mining as of 2009 is about nine times higher, in construction it is four times higher, and even the service sector has a higher fatality rate of 2.9 deaths per 100,000 compared with 2.5 in manufacturing.
The good news is that every sector now operates more safely than it did 20 years ago, including mining, where fatality rates per 100,000 workers have fallen from 31 in the 1980s to 25 in 2009, and construction, where the rate fell from 25 to about 11. The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970—which gave workers the right to a workplace free from recognized hazards—has played an essential role in bringing about these improvements, as have the agencies the Act created, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. OSHA has set standards, given compliance assistance and training to tens of thousands of employers, unions, and employees, and it has enforced the Act against negligent or reckless employers.