For who knows where the time goes?

Sandy Denny, English singer-songwriter

Stopping by to visit a friend in a high-rise in downtown Philly, I got into a chat with the security guard in the lobby. He said his job was a part-time thing in his retirement. Then he said something that has stuck: “One minute you’re 25 and the next you’re 75. Just like that.” Being in my twenties at the time, I didn’t get it.

Now I do. You’re busy, you're not counting off the days, not paying attention, decades whoosh by, and then you go, “Whoa, where’d the time go?”

In tune with the zeitgeist

ISHN was launched in 1967. Its founders for years had published an industrial maintenance magazine that included safety products. They picked up on the zeitgeist of the times. Circa ’67 rumblings coming from Washington indicated that President Johnson was considering an occupational safety law. Unions said it would be a way to secure the labor vote, not that Democrats had to worry about that. But the ’60s were a time of big thinking in D.C. (imagine that). The Great Society programs had the goal of eliminating poverty and racial injustice. New major spending programs addressed education, medical care, urban problems, rural poverty and transportation.

Environmental protection was coming on. It’s almost impossible to imagine in 2016 the bevy of environmental laws passed by Congress from 1965 to 1969: the Water Quality Act, the Endangered Species Preservation Act, the Solid Waste Disposal Act, the Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act, the Aircraft Noise Abatement Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Occupational health: the initial concern

Safety and environmental protection have always been cousins on the same family tree. Spurred on by the move to protect public health from industrial pollution, in 1965 the Public Health Service produced a report, “Protecting the Health of Eighty Million Americans.” It noted that a new chemical entered the workplace every 20 minutes, and evidence showed a strong link between cancer and the workplace. In 1966, Johnson told a group of labor reporters, “the time has... come to do something about the effects of a workingman’s job on his health.” In January 1968, months before announcing he would not run for re-election, Johnson called on Congress to enact a job safety and health program. He called it “the shame of a modern industrial nation” that each year more than 14,000 workers were killed and 2.2 million injured on the job.

Labor pains

Johnson’s proposal failed. OSHA’s birth, like its entire existence, was anything but smooth. Business groups hated the idea and said job safety laws were a matter the states should take up. A bitter three-year legislative battle followed. In a flurry of political negotiations and compromises across the aisle that seem altogether impossible today, a bill was hammered out and passed by Congress in 1970. All sides praised the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Can you imagine? The Chamber of Commerce termed it “a substantial victory” for those in industry seeking a fair yet effective law. AFL-CIO President George Meany called it “a long step...toward a safe and healthy workplace.” President Nixon signed the law in a ceremony attended by national business and labor leaders in “a spirit of harmony and bipartisanship.”

Timing is everything

And so in the course of ISHN’s 50 years we’ve gone from good vibrations (the Beach Boys released the song in ’66 actually) to the most acrimonious political gridlock in memory. If the modern occupational safety and health movement wasn’t jumped started by OSHA when it happened, would it have ever happened?

Yes, but not by a kick from Washington. As usual, tragedies would have pushed things forward. Human suffering costs politicians votes; eventually something like the OSH Act would have been enacted. Meanwhile, industry would have moved ahead with safety programs on its own; major corporations had safety departments for decades before the OSH Act. Labor unions of course would have agitated for worker protections – union national membership reached its zenith in 1979.

History has a way of resolving itself. It’s like a fictional book about how, if the South had won the Civil War, over the course of 150 years the country wouldn’t look much different today. Beneath history’s plot twists is an underlying organic evolution at work. Workplace safety and health naturally has evolved in 50 years, just as businesses morph into new models (Google building driverless cars?) and magazines either change with reader and advertiser needs or whither away. That’s been ISHN’s journey for 50 years, and we look forward to keeping you informed across multiple media platforms (web, social, video, webinars, etc.). Media platforms? No one was talking about that in 1967. Who does know where the time goes?