Unions want government to require employers to pay for workers' protective gear

Thursday, April 10th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Labor unions want the government to require that employers pay for the safety equipment and protective gear they must provide to workers.

In a letter Thursday to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, the United Food and Commercial Workers and eight other unions said a new federal regulation was needed to help protect low-wage, mostly Hispanic immigrant workers in meatpacking and poultry plants.

The union cited a meatpacking plant in Omaha, Neb., that requires workers to wear rubber boots, but deducts their cost from workers' paychecks. The labor groups acknowledge in their letter that most employers do pay for the safety gear. But they say that is not the case in low-wage industries.

The petition has been received and will be reviewed, said a spokeswoman for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The letter said that to avoid the cost of a replacement, workers who must pay for their own equipment will wear worn-out gear that no longer protects them. The union said it has seen poultry plant workers sewing metal mesh gloves in an attempt to repair them because new ones can cost as much as $65.

``Many workers in these industries rely on personal protective equipment as virtually their only measure of protection,'' said Jackie Nowell, UFCW's safety and health director.

In the past, OSHA has agreed that employers should pay for such equipment.

It adopted regulations in 1994 requiring employers to provide safety gear, such as hard hats, special gloves and protective glasses. The rule failed to specify who should pay for the equipment. The agency sent a policy memo to field staff to clarify, saying employers were obligated in most cases to pay for safety equipment required by OSHA.

The agency sought to clarify the position again in 1999 with a proposed rule and public comments. A final regulation was never issued.