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June 7, 2007

"Can't Take It No More": OSHA's Hollywood Moment

In 1972, twelve years before I founded Lynch Ryan and workers' compensation entered my life in a meaningful way, after completing a rather extended, all expenses paid trip to Southeast Asia (beautiful scenery, but a bit inhospitable when I was there), I said goodbye to the armed services only to say hello to the armed services. America was in the middle of a recession and jobs were hard to come by, so I accepted an offer to become a safety trainee for the US Army at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. The safety program at Fort Devens, run by a nice fellow very close to retirement, seemed more of an afterthought than anything else, so I thought the career prospects had nowhere to go but up.

Just two years earlier President Nixon, to great fanfare, had signed into law the Occupational Safety & Health Act, which created a new federal administration called OSHA. (Actually, Nixon had fought tooth and nail to prevent OSHA’s passage, but upon realizing that this was one battle he was going to lose, he had a big signing ceremony and took credit for the whole thing – they didn’t call him “tricky Dick” for nothing.)

I entered the safety profession when OSHA was in its ascendancy. The Act gave OSHA teeth (the general duty clause, alone, was sharply fanged), and American business quickly stood up, took notice and started to make changes. It’s true that early on OSHA’s rules were confusing, its personnel inconsistent, at best, and its enforcement procedures controversial. But in August, 1972, when I found myself in the business, OSHA was getting its sea legs. The Army’s safety training program that I entered embraced OSHA, even though the ACT specifically excluded the federal government from having to follow OSHA’s rules. Three years later, when I became the Director of the Army’s safety efforts throughout New England, and would travel up and down the east coast lecturing on safety and health, it was obvious that OSHA was a big stick.

In 1979, with assistance from the AFL-CIO, OSHA produced a 27-minute movie called “Can’t Take It No More.” Narrated by Studs Terkel, it carried a powerful message, offering a history of the safety movement in America and targeting worker health. As part of our program, my training department would screen the film repeatedly over the next year and a half for soldiers and civilian employees.

In 1981, one of the first things the new Reagan administration did as it began to reverse OSHA’s aggressive thrust by ushering in "voluntary compliance," was to recall all governmental copies of “Can’t Take It No More” and forbid any organization seeking government funding for a safety program from showing the film. I recall having to box up our three copies and send them back to Washington, DC, where they were to be destroyed. That was when I knew that, for OSHA, the good times were over.

I was reminded of all this yesterday when I read a brief piece about “Can’t Take It No More” written by Jordan Barab, one of the nation’s most passionate and dedicated safety advocates. Jordan even provided a link to the film itself, and I spent 27 minutes in a virtual time machine viewing this classic. You can do the same thing here: “Can’t Take It No More” .

Thanks Jordan.

Posted by Tom Lynch at 8:48 AM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
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