OSHA's PPE Plan Draws Fire From Both Sides

Large industry groups complain about proposed OSHA rules that would require them to pay for personal protective equipment. Labor unions are unhappy about three exceptions in the proposal.

Large industry groups that spoke Aug. 10 through Aug. 13 at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) hearing on proposed changes to personal protective equipment (PPE) regulations complained about new rules that would require them to pay for such equipment.

Yet, those concerns were mild compared to criticism by labor unions to the proposal's three exceptions. They argued that workers should not be forced to purchase prescription safety eyewear, safety-toe footwear or logging boots.

Marthe Kent, OSHA's director of safety standards programs, explained in her opening statement that the proposed rule would codify what has been long-standing agency policy. "The purchase, provision, maintenance and replacement of adequate PPE are vital to safety and health conditions in the workplace," she said, "and, thus, are properly the responsibility of employers."

The central argument Kent used to justify the rule was that workers are endangered through nonuse or misuse of PPE when employees, rather than employers, are required to pay for their protective equipment.

OSHA decided to propose a revision to its PPE standards after the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission found existing rules requiring employers to pay for most protective gear were vague and inconsistent.

Kent emphasized that the proposal would not require employers to provide PPE where none has been required before. She also noted that, according to a recently completed telephone survey, employers already pay for most PPE.

Representatives of the shipbuilding and home construction industry objected, saying OSHA's proposal would be an onerous burden that could put some of them out of business.

Tony Buancore of the Shipbuilders Council of America (SCA) argued that, in his industry, payment for PPE is part of collective bargaining agreements and outside of OSHA's jurisdiction. He called on OSHA to "grandfather" existing contractual arrangements concerning PPE and warned the new rules could lower workers" wages.

Buancore also disputed OSHA's contention that employee safety is enhanced when employers pay for PPE. "SCA members report no difference in injury rates based on who pays for the PPE," he said, then called on the agency to back up its position with data.

Caroline Sherman runs a Norfolk, Va., temporary employment service that provides workers to the shipbuilding and construction industries. She questioned the validity of the OSHA survey because of its small size and stated the proposed rule could triple her costs, cut workers' wages and force her out of business.

"The only reason my workers care for their PPE," she said, "is because they pay for it."

Sherman said she wonders how many times she would have to pay for new PPE if workers lose, retain or sell it. In an interview after her testimony, she stated she knew of no instances when one of her workers was injured due to inadequate PPE.

Organized labor representatives painted quite a different picture of PPE in the workplace and generally were supportive of the OSHA initiative. If workers must pay for PPE, they often do not buy it or use it long after it should be thrown out, said Jacqueline Nowell of United Food and Commercial Workers.

"Workers don't replace worn-out PPE because they can't afford it," Nowell said.

Representatives from a range of labor unions supported the notion that employees will endanger their own safety when forced to pay for PPE. Union officials also used this argument to contend that the exceptions to the proposed employer-must-pay rule are illogical and inconsistent.

For example, building trade representatives said that forcing employees to buy prescription safety eyewear would lead many to use protective goggles over eyeglasses. This practice is unsafe, they argued, because goggles often fog up, obstructing vision.

OSHA defended the exceptions for safety-toe footwear and prescription eyewear by pointing out that such equipment often is worn off the job site and only can be used by one employee.

The proposed rule exempts employers from having to pay for safety-toe footwear or eyewear, provided the employer permits these kinds of PPE to be worn off-site, the equipment is not unsafe to wear off-site, and the footwear or eyewear is not designed for special use on the job. Metatarsal or cut-resistant protective boots would not be covered by the proposed exemptions and would have to be purchased by employers, because these kinds of footwear generally are not used off the work site.

A final rule on the question of who pays for PPE is not expected until next year, said Glen Gardner of OSHA's directorate of safety standards.

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