In remarks Tuesday to Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, OSHA’s assistant secretary of labor said that significant decreases in worker mortality and illness over the past four decades were largely the result of the agency’s efforts. Although the U.S. workforce has doubled in size since 1970, worker deaths went from approximately 14,000 to 4,400 in 2009, while injuries and illnesses dropped from 10.9 incidents per 100 workers to fewer than four.

“Some of this decline was due to the shift of our economy from manufacturing to service industries,” said Michaels. “But, clearly, much of our progress is due to tougher government standards and greater awareness of workplace safety practices brought about by OSHA.”

Among the achievements cited by Michaels was a standard enacted in the late 1980s to protect grain handlers from combustible dust explosions. “Since then, grain explosions have declined 42 percent, worker injuries dropped 60 percent, and worker deaths fell 70 percent.”

The rate of brown lung disease among textile workers has dropped from 12 percent to one percent since the Cotton Dust standard went into effect in 1978. Michaels also said that workers have reduced exposure to asbestos, lead and benzene and healthcare providers are at less risk from needlestick hazards and bloodborne pathogens, thanks to OSHA’s efforts.

Hampered by limited staff, small penalties

Despite these developments, Michaels said that a great deal of work remained to be done. He reminded the audience that 4,400 U.S. workers are killed on the job each year, while four million suffer serious injuries and tens of thousands contract job-related illnesses.

The challenges of having a small staff -- 1,200 inspectors to cover 29 states -- and the inability to levy large maximum fines (as compared to other federal agencies) force OSHA to seek “creative solutions” to workplace safety issues, including its Severe Violators Enforcement Program (SVEP), a stronger penalty structure, and the use of publicity to expose those he called “bad actors in the public arena.”

OSHA accused of stifling economic growth

Critics of OSHA charge that the agency hampers economic growth and saddles small businesses in particular with burdensome regulations. Others claim that OSHA’s method of punishing businesses after fatalities and injuries occur is counterproductive and does not help prevent future problems.

Michaels said OSHA has been “under attack since the day it was born,” adding: “Today, attacks on OSHA are part of attacks on the role of government as a whole.”

“Let me say this as clearly as I can: OSHA is not working to kill jobs; we're here to stop jobs from killing worker,” Michaels said. “We are here to ensure that workers have the tools to keep themselves from getting sick and dying in the workplace, and that employers have the information they need to make their workplaces safe.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Act was signed by President Nixon on December 30, 1970, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was born on April 28, 1971.