Low-wage, predominantly Hispanic immigrant workers in meatpacking and poultry plants suffer some of the highest injury rates in the nation. Organized labor contends one reason for the high rates is workers are forced to pay for their own safety gear, such as mesh gloves and boots. The result: workers wear their personal protective equipment (PPE) beyond its useful life, putting themselves at risk of serious injury.
Last week, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), the Hispanic Caucus and eight other labor groups filed a petition with the Secretary of Labor to demand action within 60 days on a rule requiring employers to pay for PPE.
"Many workers in these industries rely on personal protective equipment as virtually their only measure of protection," asserted Jackie Nowell, the UFCW's director of occupational safety and health.
For example, Nowell pointed out that to prevent knife cuts workers in the poultry and meat industries wear metal mesh gloves that can cost up to $65 a lot of money for jobs that often pay minimum wage.
But most workers in the meat industry do not have to buy their own PPE, according to the American Meat Institute (AMI), an industry trade association. "In the vast majority of cases companies provide this equipment to their employees," countered Josee Daust, an AMI spokesperson. "So it's not an issue for us."
Backing up this industry claim, Daust contended that when OSHA held public hearings on the PPE rule in 1999, AMI took no position and didn't even bother to testify.
During the hearings on the standard, small construction companies and shipbuilding firms were among those who raised objections to OSHA requiring employers to pay for and provide PPE to workers. These employers argued that because of the high turnover rates in their industries, the requirement would not be cost-effective.
According to an August 2000 letter written to OSHA Administrator John Henshaw by the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA), OSHA staff had already completed most of the work on the PPE rule under Henshaw's predecessor, Charles Jeffress. The standard clarifying that employers must pay for PPE rule was delayed in the final phase of the Clinton administration as OSHA focused on the ergonomics standard.
The ISEA letter to Henshaw concludes: "OSHA must act on this clarification, which has been pending since November 1999."
OSHA has not heeded ISEA's advice. Although listed as a final rule in the Clinton years, the PPE rule is relegated to a "long-term action" on the agency's most recent regulatory agenda, along with the annotation, "next action undetermined."
Asked to comment on the UFCW petition, an OSHA spokesman replied, "We have received the petition and are reviewing it."