Formed in the wake of the US Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, committees on occupational safety and health initially emerged as local coalitions of public health advocates, concerned professionals, and rank-and-file activists meeting to deal with problems resulting from toxics in the workplace. Early COSH groups started in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and New York. In the south, they evolved in conjunction with grass roots organizations such as Carolina Brown Lung, representing textile mill workers suffering from byssinosis. Currently there are 25 COSH groups around the country, at various stages of development and funded through a wide variety of methods. Many COSH groups have made a strategic decision to work with and through organized labor, recognizing that union-empowered workers are the best equipped to fight for safe working conditions.
COSH groups bring together a broad coalition of organizations and individuals from unions, the public health community and environmental interests, including rank-and-file safety and health activists, academics, lawyers, doctors, public health professionals, social workers and so on. They provide a forum in which interest groups that do not normally work together can communicate about workplace safety and health problems. In the COSH, workers have a chance to discuss the safety and health issues they confront on the shop floor with academics and medical experts. Through such discussions, academic and medical research can get translated for use by working people.
COSH groups have been highly active politically, both through traditional means (such as lobbying campaigns) and through more colorful methods (such as picketing and carrying coffins past the homes of anti-labor elected officials). COSH groups played a key role in the struggles for local and state right-to-know legislation, building broad-based coalitions of union, environmental and public interest organizations to support this cause. For example, the Philadelphia area COSH group (PHILAPOSH) ran a campaign which resulted in the first city right-to-know law passed in the country. The campaign climaxed when PHILAPOSH members dramatized the need for hazard information by opening an unmarked pressurized canister at a public hearing, sending members of the City Council literally diving under tables as the gas (oxygen) escaped.
Local right-to-know campaigns eventually yielded more than 23 local and state right-to-know laws. The diversity of requirements was so great that chemical corporations ultimately demanded a national standard, so they would not have to comply with so many differing local regulations. What happened with COSH groups and right to know is an excellent example of how the efforts of labor and community coalitions working at the local level can combine to have a powerful national impact on occupational safety and health policy.