Poultry workers typically stand shoulder to shoulder de-boning chicken breasts mounted on cones flying by at the rate of dozens per minute. They must wear metal mesh gloves on their non-cutting hands to protect them from the razor sharp blades they and their co-workers wield at lightening speed.
But too often a worker who finds a hole in his or her glove might put off replacing it. Why?
While the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires employers to "provide" such personal safety equipment, the agency does nothing to prevent employers from charging their workers for it. For a low-paid poultry worker, the 80 bucks it costs for a metal mesh glove could be two day's take-home pay.
A lawsuit filed Jan. 3 by the AFL-CIO and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union charges that the Bush administration is putting American workers in danger by stonewalling on enacting an OSHA rule originally scheduled to take effect in 2000 to ensure that employers pay for personal safety equipment (PPE).
"Workers in some of America's most dangerous industries such as meatpacking, poultry and construction ... are being forced by their employers to pay for their own safety gear because of OSHA's failure to finish the PPE rule," a joint statement by the two labor groups declared.
In 1999, during the Clinton administration, OSHA set itself a deadline of 2000 to implement a rule which would ensure that employers pay for the personal protective equipment needed to protect workers in dangerous jobs. In the succeeding seven years, as the Bush Department of Labor stalled, 50 workers have died and 400,000 have been injured due to the absence of the rule. These numbers come from OSHA's own estimates.
"These are the most vulnerable workers - Black women, immigrant workers - the exact group of workers OSHA should be taking care of," Jackie Newell, safety director for the UFCW, told the World. Newell explained that while in union-represented plants the workers are collectively able to enforce the employer's responsibility to provide safety equipment, in nonunion facilities management even makes a profit from it.
Management has been interpreting their legal obligation to provide safety equipment as a responsibility to sell safety equipment. "These low-wage workers are in a double-bind," Newell said. "We've heard of cases of management charging $15 to $30 for the required slip-proof rubber boots, and charging $1 a pair in vending machines for hearing protection earplugs that wholesale for a penny a piece."
The OSHA PPE rule would require employers to cover the cost of personal protective equipment, including clothing, lifelines, face shields, gloves, hearing protection and other gear used by an estimated 20 million workers to protect themselves from job hazards.
The PPE rule was proposed in 1999 by OSHA after a ruling by the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission that OSHA's existing PPE standard could not be interpreted to require employers to pay for protective equipment.
"The new rule would not impose any new obligations on employers to provide safety equipment; it simply codifies OSHA's longstanding policy that employers, not employees, have the responsibility to pay for it," said the unions' statement.
In 1999, OSHA promised to issue the final PPE by July 2000. In 2003 it failed to respond to a petition by the AFL-CIO and the UFCW. It has also ignored numerous requests for action by the Hispanic Congressional Caucus.
"Nothing is standing in the way of OSHA issuing a final PPE rule to protect worker safety and health except the will to do so," said UFCW President Joe Hansen. "We are asking the courts to force OSHA to act."
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said, "The Bush Department of Labor should stop looking out for corporate interests at the expense of workers' safety and health. Too many workers have already been hurt or killed."
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.
Roberta Wood is labor editor for the People's Weekly World newspaper (www.pww.org).