Response Mixed to OSHA's Proposed PPE Rule

It's little surprise that 18- to 34-year-olds are at the heart of a nationwide increase in illegal drug use, and the manufacturing industry traditionally draws heavily from this pool of job seekers.

A revised OSHA standard that would require employers to pay for most personal protective equipment (PPE) has drawn general support from unions and many large corporations, but is opposed by smaller firms in the construction and shipbuilding industries.

An informal public hearing on the proposal was scheduled for Aug. 10 in Washington, D.C. About 20 persons and organizations are expected to attend, said OSHA statistician Jim Maddux. The revision also prompted more than 200 written responses from labor and business groups.

The current OSHA rule requires employers to "provide" employees with PPE, when such equipment is necessary, to protect workers from job-related hazards. The precise meaning of the word "provide" sometimes has led to labor vs. management disputes about who should pay for the equipment.

Under the proposed revision, employers would be required to pay for the initial issue of PPE and for replacement of equipment that is worn out or lost. Only three types of PPE would be excluded from the new rule: Employers would not have to pay for safety-toe shoes, prescription eyewear or logging boots, provided certain conditions are met.

Some clues to the reasons for the varying responses from businesses are revealed by the results of a recently completed OSHA-sponsored survey of employers. According to the nationwide survey, more than 90 percent of all employers whose companies use PPE bear the full cost of the equipment in seven out of eight categories. Foot protection is the only type of protective gear whose cost is shared by employees in a substantial number of cases.

The survey also revealed that in all eight PPE categories, most small businesses those with less than 20 employees do not use PPE, while larger establishments are far more likely to use the equipment. For example, with a reported use rate of 45.9 percent, gloves and protective clothing are the most frequently used categories of PPE for small businesses. In contrast, nearly 70 percent of medium-sized firms 20 to 500 workers indicated they use this type of PPE, while the figure for large firms is 82.9 percent.

Allen Walker, president of the Shipbuilders Council of America, said he would oppose the proposed rule revision at the Aug. 10 meeting. While all shipyards are required to use PPE, he explained, the issue of who pays for the equipment is generally part of a collective bargaining agreement with labor.

"We believe that OSHA should tell us what items of PPE need to be used to protect workers," Walker said. "They should not be in the business of telling us or anyone who should pay for that equipment."

David Peters, president of Sellstrom Manufacturing Co., a firm that fabricates PPE, countered that because employers are ultimately responsible for worker safety, it makes more sense for employers to pay for the equipment. "The employer has done a better job of analyzing the risk and determining what should be used," Peters argued, "whereas Joe Blow may be looking at what's cheaper or what looks cooler."

By far the largest number of written responses in the OSHA docket devoted to the rule revision came from state and regional homebuilders' associations, with all of them strongly opposed to the proposal. The letters bear a striking similarity to each other: They almost all use the same words to make the same arguments.

Homebuilders worry they will have to continually replace lost or stolen PPE to avoid OSHA citations, and they reject the idea that requiring employees to pay for the equipment will discourage them from using it. On the contrary, the homebuilders argue, permitting an employee to pay in full or in part for PPE will ensure it is maintained in good working order.

If the business community is divided on the rule revision, the labor movement is uniformly in favor of it, according to Bill Kajola, an industrial hygienist with AFL-CIO.

"We're supportive of OSHA's attempt to answer, once and for all, this question of who pays for PPE for workers," he said. Kajola indicated his only reservation with the proposal is that it does not go far enough. AFL-CIO is opposed to the exceptions for shoes, boots and eyewear.

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