Unions Sue Over 'Personal Protective Equipment'

By Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:23 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - New year, new lawsuit: The AFL-CIO and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union are suing the U.S. Department of Labor for failing to issue a rule requiring employers to pay for employees' protective clothing and/or equipment.

The rule -- proposed in 1999 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration -- would require employers to pay for items such as gloves, face shields, special clothing, lifelines and other equipment used to protect workers from on-the-job hazards.

OSHA currently "requires" employers to determine if personal protective equipment (PPE) should be used to protect workers from job hazards, but it doesn't say who must pay for that equipment.

The revised rule would require employers to pay for protective equipment when it's first needed and when it wears out or is lost. There are three exceptions: Employers would not have to pay for prescription safety eyewear, safety shoes or logging boots.

The union lawsuit says the Bush administration's failure to act is putting workers in danger.

"By OSHA's own estimates, 400,000 workers have been injured and 50 have died due to the absence of this rule," the unions said in a news release.

The labor groups say that workers in some of America's most dangerous industries (identified as meatpacking, poultry and construction) as well as low-wage and immigrant workers are being forced to pay for their own protective equipment because OSHA has failed to finalize the PPE rule.

In 1999, OSHA promised to issue the final PPE rule in July 2000. But it missed that deadline and has missed every self-imposed deadline since, the unions complained.

Blaming Bush

The lawsuit filed Wednesday seeks to end what it describes as an "egregious" eight-year delay.

"The Bush Administration's failure to implement even this most basic safety rule spotlights how it has turned its back on workers in this country," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

"Too many workers have already been hurt or killed. The Bush Department of Labor should stop looking out for corporate interests at the expense of workers' safety and health on the job."

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, asks the court to issue an order directing the Secretary of Labor to complete the PPE rule within 60 days of the court's order.

Ship- and home-building industries have argued that the cost of providing PPE - then replacing it when it is worn out or lost - would be prohibitive.

And they argue that employees tend to take better care of equipment when they buy it themselves.

At some companies, the question of who pays for protective equipment is covered under collective bargaining agreements.

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