Nation's Largest Union Sues Labor Department Over Safety Equipment

The nation's largest labor union is suing the federal government for not forcing employers to pay for workers' goggles, face shields, gloves, and other safety gear at hazardous workplaces.

In a lawsuit filed this week in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the AFL-CIO, along with the United Food and Commercial Workers, accused the Bush administration of endangering the lives of some 20 million workers by failing to establish a standard protective-equipment policy for all employers.

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The lack of a clear policy, they said, has resulted in the deaths of some 50 workers and injuries to 400,000 more at meatpacking plants, construction sites, and other dangerous businesses where low-wage employees can be forced to buy their own safety equipment.

Some employers — including residential homebuilders — have claimed workers take better care of equipment they buy themselves, while owner-provided equipment tends to get misused and neglected. That runs up costs without improving workplace safety, they say.

They also argue that owner-issued personal protective equipment — or PPE — should be limited to equipment that can be sanitized and reissued to other workers, as opposed to "tools of the trade," such as fire resistant jackets and gloves that are typically bought by welders and taken from job to job.

In 1999, a regulatory commission determined that under the terms of existing federal policies, which are set by the Occupation Safety and Health Administration, employers were not legally bound to pay for their workers' safety equipment. Eight years later, OSHA has yet to act on the ruling, the labor groups said.

"Too many workers have already been hurt or killed," John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, said in a statement. "The Bush Department of Labor should stop looking out for corporate interests at the expense of workers' safety and health on the job."

The suit filed this week would force the government to establish a final policy within 60 days of the court's order.

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