Eula Bingham, a toxicologist who energized the Occupational Safety and Health Administration as its director and set stringent standards to protect workers from hazardous materials, died on June 13 in Cincinnati. She was 90.
She was nearing completion of chemotherapy treatments for cancer when she suffered a pulmonary embolism and cardiac collapse and died in a hospital, her daughter Martha Mattheis said.
Dr. Bingham was appointed director of OSHA by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. During her tenure the agency adopted more regulatory standards on harmful chemicals — including benzene, cotton dust and lead — than any previous administration had and more than most have since.
Under so-called right-to-know regulations, employers had to inform workers about any hazardous chemicals they were working with, and manufacturers had to list those chemicals on containers. Dr. Bingham was forced to fend off lawsuits by companies that did not want to disclose such information.
“Workers have a right to expect they won’t be killed on their jobs,” Dr. Bingham told The Washington Post in 1977.
When she took over OSHA, the agency was something of a laughingstock for having promulgated thousands of rules that had little to do with making workplaces safer. They required that toilet seats have open fronts, for example, and that telephone linemen use tool belts with no more than four tool loops.
In an effort to pursue what President Carter called “common sense priorities,” Dr. Bingham eliminated more than 1,000 regulations that she considered “nit-picking” and that industry regarded as a nuisance. This freed the agency’s inspectors to focus on serious threats — to go after whales, not minnows, in the parlance of the day.
“She put OSHA on the map,” Dr. Philip Landrigan, a friend who worked with her in government starting in 1979, said in an interview. “She was a strong-willed woman who understood the levers of government.”
In her campaign for workplace safety Dr. Bingham clashed with business, Congress and even fellow members of the Carter administration, though she usually had the backing of the president. Perhaps her hardest-fought battle was over cotton dust, which threatened the health of Southern textile workers, many of them poor, black and nonunion.
Dr. Bingham wanted to lower the acceptable levels of cotton dust, but mill owners opposed her.
“There was a pitched battle fought in the Oval Office in front of Jimmy Carter,” Dr. Landrigan said. Dr. Bingham and Ray Marshall, the labor secretary, pushed for the new standard while Mr. Carter’s economic advisers argued against it, saying it would hurt business.
Finally, Dr. Landrigan said, President Carter walked over, grinned, put his arm around Dr. Bingham and said, “I am with Eula on this one.”
As a Washington bureaucrat, Dr. Bingham achieved a rare level of notoriety. In 1979, she appeared in The Washington Star’s crossword puzzle. “OSHA Lady” read the clue for 39 Across, seeking a four-letter answer.
With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, Dr. Bingham was out, and his administration proceeded to dismantle many of the regulations and safeguards she had put in place.
But even without her federal perch, she persisted, working with state legislators, labor unions and consumer groups to implement safety regulations at the state and local levels.
Eula Lee Bingham was born on July 9, 1929, in Covington, Ky., across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. Her father, Arthur Bingham, was a railroad worker who lost his job during the Depression and became a farmer in Burlington, Ky., about 15 miles to the southwest. Her mother, Frieda (Sperl) Bingham, a nurse and phone operator, also worked the farm, where the couple produced most of their food and where Eula grew up.
She went on to major in biology and chemistry at Eastern Kentucky University. After graduating in 1951, she was hired as an analytical chemist by the Hilton-Davis Chemical Company in Cincinnati, where, she said in a 2018 oral history, she became familiar with the dangers that many workers face.
She went to graduate school at the University of Cincinnati, where she did pioneering research on carcinogens while studying in the toxicology division (which became the department of environmental health at the university’s College of Medicine). She earned her master’s in physiology in 1954 and her doctorate in zoology in 1958.
Dr. Bingham’s lab research included testing chemicals sent by companies that wanted to know their carcinogenic effects. At one company, which used benzidine-based dyes, the lab found that almost half the workers had some form of bladder cancer. In another case, the lab found that the cutting fluid used in a manufacturing process caused skin cancer.
With her findings gaining notice, she became a sought-after consultant and expert witness in lawsuits involving worker safety. This attracted the attention of labor unions. Dr. Bingham was soon appointed to federal worker-safety advisory committees that were examining carcinogens and emissions from coke ovens.
When Mr. Carter was elected in 1976, he asked labor unions to recommend potential directors for OSHA. Dr. Bingham’s name rose to the top.
Although she worked in Washington for more than three years, she never moved there. None of her predecessors had lasted more than a year, and she figured she might not, either.
By then, she and her husband, Helmut Mattheis, had divorced, and her three teenage daughters were living in Cincinnati with other family members. She commuted home on weekends, when she would cook up batches of meals and freeze them for her daughters to eat during the week.
In addition to her daughter Martha, she is survived by her two other daughters, Julia and Helen Mattheis; and two granddaughters.
After Reagan’s election, Dr. Bingham returned to the University of Cincinnati and served as vice president of research and graduate studies there from 1981 to 1990. She continued to be active in worker safety. When the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil in Prince William Sound in 1989, the governor of Alaska called Dr. Bingham to make sure that cleanup workers had been properly trained and safely outfitted.
She also turned her attention to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee where workers involved in the production of nuclear weapons and reactors had been exposed to radiation, mercury and other hazardous materials for almost a half-century. She developed a novel method for reconstructing their past exposures, based on blueprints of buildings and worker interviews. Her findings led the federal government to set up a national screening program for workers.
In a reminiscence in 2015, President Carter said of Dr. Bingham, “I could always count on her for sound and direct advice, with the well-being of the American worker foremost in her mind.”