The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, October 29, 2004

Who pays for personal protective equipment? Maybe workers should, OSHA suggests

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

OSHA is considering a new rule which would require construction workers to pay for many types of personal protective equipment (PPE). The new rule under consideration would shift the burden of cost from employers – who currently pay for most types of PPE – to employees.

The federal safety agency said it wants to clear up questions of who should pay for required PPE – a matter which OSHA says has been subject to varying interpretation and application by the federal safety agency itself, employers and the courts. But some are wondering if OSHA is creating a problem where none exists.

“Here’s a rulemaking that has gone seriously awry,” wrote Jerry Laws, editor of Occupational Health & Safety. “With its ‘limited reopening of the rulemaking record’ in the Employer Payment for Personal Protective Equipment rule, OSHA this year did much worse than nothing. It turned a well-settled safety topic into a cauldron.”

Laws added, “out of the blue, OSHA asked whether PPE that is personal (for reasons of hygiene and personal fit) and taken from job to job could be considered ‘tools of the trade’ and not paid for by employers.”

It is understood that construction workers pay for and bring their own hard hats and steel-toed boots to the workplace, since they are considered safety equipment that involve personal fit which can be worn from job site to job site. Now OSHA is asking whether items like safety harnesses, respirators, fall arrestors, and welding masks should also be owned and paid for by employees rather than employers.

The first round of public comments came mostly from employers – who were of course overwhelmingly in favor of shifting the costs.

One of the trades that would be most affected by such a rule would be Michigan-based Asbestos Abatement Local 207 members, who are at the bottom of the wage scale in the union trades but wear the most expensive equipment.

“Passing that kind of a rule would have a great financial impact on our members,” said Local 207 Business Manager Dan Somenauer. “I think our contractors realize that the greater costs would chase workers out of the business.”

Somenauer said depending on the hazardous material workers are removing, a worker could be wearing $500 worth of equipment. On a typical day, it costs about $25 per worker for items like disposable suits and respirator cartridges.

Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO director of health and safety, told the Hill News that OSHA’s decision is “a matter of looking like they are doing something” and is not “a serious effort to bring people together” because of the lack of input for safety and health and immigration groups. The AFL-CIO has maintained that requiring PPE would have the greatest negative impact on low-paid immigrant workers.

According to the Occupational web site, the AFL-CIO cited OSHA’s own figures that the existing rule requiring employers to pay for virtually all forms of personal protective equipment prevents more than 47,000 injuries annually. The labor federation said the existing rulemaking record indicates that workers’ health and safety suffer when workers pay for their own PPE, because they often cannot afford it, or use their PPE beyond its effective life.

OSHA is evaluating the responses to its public query and has not said when it will make a final decision.