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  • Surviving a “Carcinogen Rich Environment”:Steelworkers’ Democratic Intrusion into the Regulation of Coke-Oven Emissions
  • Alan Derickson (bio)

The administrative rules articulating social policy in twentieth-century America largely resulted from a deliberative system dominated by a relatively small number of inside players, with bureaucratic barriers frustrating deep participation by the nonelite members of society often most affected. At the federal level, specialist public administrators and their expert advisers from academia, think tanks, and increasingly sophisticated interest groups generally controlled the implementation of social regulation. However, this pattern did not go unchallenged. Especially in the wake of movements for racial equality, environmental safeguards, and social provision, the second half of the twentieth century witnessed the opening of previously closeted policy-making proceedings to a broader segment of the citizenry. The trend toward democratization accelerated in the 1970s. In the controversial area of workplace health protection, workers victimized or at risk of victimization took advantage of the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 to assert their interests in a newly constructed regulatory forum. Officials in charge of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) at times found themselves dealing with men and women lacking the customary credentials of professional authority.1

At its inception, OSHA had an essentially simple statutory mandate to make and enforce rules that would protect workers from recognized hazards. Throughout the agency’s initial decade, a series of battles took place over the formulation of standards to limit employee exposure to a number of important [End Page 561] health hazards—lead, asbestos, vinyl chloride, and other toxic substances. Social scientists and, to a lesser extent, historians have helpfully provided case studies of several of the principal encounters. The central theme emerging from these inquiries is that of conflict, always intense and usually protracted. Accordingly, historical policy analysis has illuminated the two key issues over which organized labor and organized capital most frequently clashed—biomedical questions of risk and the feasibility of controlling risk. The literature has focused on reviewing the merits of the substantive arguments offered by the expert gladiators brought in by corporate management and its union adversaries, with due consideration of the mediating role of federal administrators.2

Attention to the substance of the debates has thus far not been accompanied by serious attention to the possible significance of changes in the composition in the roster of debaters. Scholars have apparently made the generally valid assumption that setting OSHA health standards was an assignment that only those with advanced formal expertise tackled. Accordingly, missing from the historical literature is more than minimal notice of the fresh opportunity that implementation of the landmark federal safety and health law presented for democratizing the regulation of working conditions. Indeed, only journalist Mimi Conway’s account of the involvement of disabled textile workers, mobilized by the Carolina Brown Lung Association in the campaign to restrict exposure to cotton dust, sheds any light on lay contributions. Conway discussed the journey of fifty elderly working-class women and men to Washington in 1977 to discuss their breathless plight with Eula Bingham, the assistant secretary of labor responsible for OSHA, leaving her in tears. In formal testimony at the public hearings on the cotton-dust standard, brown-lung activist Lucy Taylor described her predicament of severe disability. Taylor told federal officials, “We are not technical experts, but we are experts in experience and in telling the truth about our lives.” This study aims to broaden our understanding of occupational health policy formation by exploring the invention of a participative regulatory strategy. The textile workers, as well as other lay challengers since the late 1970s, were emulating an approach first devised by the United Steelworkers of America (USW) in its pursuit of an effective OSHA standard to control exposure to toxic emissions from coke ovens.3

For the Steelworkers, extensive lay engagement with established authorities on the forbidding terrain of scientifically informed social policymaking represented an extraordinary departure. No previous experience much prepared [End Page 562] the union’s nonprofessional participants—mainly local union officers, along with one local officer who became a member of the union’s central staff early in the coke-oven emissions contest—for this...


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pp. 561-591
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