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A History of the COSH Movement
When the OSH Act first became law in 1970, worker safety and health advocates realized that the new law and the new agency created to protect worker safety—OSHA—would only be effective if workers knew about their rights under the law and how to use them. So these advocates came together and formed Committees (or Coalitions) on Occupational Safety and Health with the goal of providing workers with the information and skills they needed to protect their safety and health on the job.
The first COSH was formed in Chicago in 1972, followed over the next several years by new organizations in Philadelphia, New York City, North Carolina, Maine, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts. The early COSHes were aided by small grants under a new federal OSHA program called “New Directions,” a progressive effort by the agency then led by Eula Bingham to reach out to workers with information about their rights under OSHA.
Early COSH activities focused on training workers to use the new tools offered them by the OSH Act to file complaints and push for safer workplaces. In addition, COSHes developed a variety of campaigns on the local level that addressed concerns of their local union members. A number of COSHes got involved in the battle over Right-to-Know legislation, both in the community and the workplace. Pressure from the COSHes, local environmental groups, and other activists, resulted in the passage of many state and local Right-to-Know laws. Ultimately, this local pressure resulted in the development of a national OSHA standard. The Hazard Communication Standard was eventually promulgated in 1983. For the first time, workers in the U.S. had the right to know about the chemical hazards to which they were exposed on the job.
Under the Reagan administration in the 1980s, funding for the “New Directions” program was slashed, but the COSHes survived with support from labor unions, individual members, and some foundation grants. Some COSHes, particularly those in New York state, benefited from the establishment of statewide training funds, funded by a small tax on workers’ compensation premiums.
By the mid-1980s, a number of COSHes became involved in providing hazardous materials training to workers, with funding from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences’ worker training program. This “HAZMAT” training provided a stable source of funding for some COSH groups. In addition, some COSHes began to provide asbestos training under grants from the EPA.
While the COSHes began as grassroots, local efforts, COSH groups began to network on a national level as early as 1979. By the mid-’80s, COSHes were meeting annually for a national conference at which the groups developed coordinated national strategies and campaigns.
From the early days of the COSHes, support for injured workers and their rights to fair compensation has always been a major focus. A number of COSH groups developed injured worker organizing campaigns in addition to fighting for fair workers’ compensation rules on the state level.
Efforts to strengthen the federal OSH Act have been another ongoing theme of the COSH network over the years. The original Act, a compromise in many respects, failed in many ways to provide adequate protections for workers, leaving out whole classes of employees (millions of public sector workers, farmworkers, and others) and leaving whistleblowers vulnerable to retaliation. The COSHes have continually pushed over the years to strengthen the Act.
The COSHes also came together nationally on a number of coordinated campaigns. In 1993, following the tragic fire at Imperial Food Products in Hamlet, NC, which killed 25 workers, the COSHes joined together in demanding criminal sanctions against the plant’s owners. Philaposh produced a “Wanted” poster for owner Emmett Roe, demanding that he be brought to justice for his crimes. Roe was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to a long jail term.
When the Republican Party took control of the House of Representatives in 1994, OSHA immediately came under attack. COSHes fought back fiercely, with local actions around the country designed to raise public awareness of the importance of a strong OSHA. One of the chief Republican opponents of OSHA was North Carolina Representative Cass Ballenger. Philaposh revived its “Wanted” poster, this time targeting Ballenger, calling attention to the damage his OSHA “reform” bills would do to workers’ health and safety. Other COSHes and advocates picked up the theme and the “Wanted” posters gained sudden notoriety when Ballenger’s office called for a government audit of funding given to those groups distributing the posters. The COSHes got great publicity from Ballenger’s attack, which the media rightly portrayed as a politically motivated attempt to squash dissent. Ballenger backed down on the call for an inquiry and his bills were defeated.
COSHes also played an active role throughout the 1990s in promoting a national ergonomics standard. Many local COSHes partnered with unions whose members were greatly affected by repetitive strain injuries to lobby for the standard and defend it from attacks. One such example was the COSHes’ work with the Teamsters union, fighting the attempts of UPS to kill the proposed standard. COSHes also worked together with unions to organize important testimony by injured workers in Washington, focusing attention on the need for a standard.
Also in the 1990s, COSH groups began to develop outreach and advocacy programs geared towards some of the most vulnerable workers in our society—low-wage, immigrant workers, who often work in the most dangerous jobs. These workers are also often the least likely to know about their rights under OSHA and to take the chance of reporting job safety hazards to their employer or to OSHA. COSH groups have trained tens of thousands of such workers over the years on their rights under OSHA and how they can protect their safety and health on the job.
The COSH groups have always shared ideas and strategies in an informal national network, but in 2003 the decision was made to establish an incorporated national organization. The National COSH was recognized as a 501c3 non-profit organization by the IRS in 2004, with its leadership and membership drawn from local COSH organizations. The national organization received its first external funding in the form of a generous grant from the Public Welfare Foundation in 2009, allowing us to hire our first full-time staff person, based in Raleigh, North Carolina.
A training grant under OSHA’s Susan Harwood program allowed the National COSH to hire a second full-time staff person, based in Los Angeles, giving the organization a truly national presence.
In recent years, the National COSH has played a crucial role in bringing together the disparate elements of the national worker safety and health movement by coordinating the Protecting Workers Alliance. This loose-knit network has been the primary forum for COSH groups, safety and health professionals, labor union health and safety staff, workers’ centers, and other worker advocates to share strategies and ideas and to build coordinated national campaigns.
The COSH movement has a proud history and we look forward to many more years of fighting for workers’ rights to safe and healthy jobs.