After more than nine years of stalling, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has finally taken the important step of establishing a federal regulation requiring employers to furnish, at no cost, all protective equipment that workers need. The new rule is to take effect in mid-May 2008, six months after its publication by OSHA.

Labor unions will have to make sure employers comply fully with the new requirement. Where there is no union, OSHA and state safety and health departments must act aggressively and not wait for a complaint from a worker who hasn’t been provided with the needed equipment.

Family members and friends of workers can also help enforce this rule. The new law is equivalent, in effect, to posting a sidewalk sign outside a construction site inviting the general public to call OSHA if work at the site is not being performed safely.

Safety boots, safety glasses, respirators, chemically resistant clothing, metal mesh gloves and hard hats are the most obvious items of personal protective equipment (PPEs). While federal rules governing worker exposure to asbestos, lead and other occupational health risks already require employers to furnish respirators, the new regulation can help assure employer compliance.

Engineering controls

But workers do not want to be outfitted head-to-toe with equipment that makes working an eight-hour day, plus overtime, miserable. In fact, employers could actually use this kind of regulation to avoid fixing the conditions of work. Don’t think some vengeful employers won’t do this. They will.

What is needed is for employers to improve the actual conditions of work so that no protective equipment is needed. And if some PPE remains necessary, employers should guarantee that the equipment will not be needed for a long period of time during the workday.

Such structurally corrective actions by employers are called “engineering controls.”

Engineering controls require industrial engineers and construction supervisors to make sure, for example, that all ventilation systems are working in top condition. Installation of safe and effective ventilation ducts and motors is a good first step. However, they need to be maintained in excellent condition so that they perform as effectively as when they were first installed.

There is nothing worse than having faulty protective systems which workers think are protecting them. An independent pro-worker maintenance group should be employed to thoroughly check such systems every six months. Employers also need to make sure all industrial solvents are used with the very minimum of worker exposure.

Administrative controls also help workers. These force employers to give workers time off between long work operations that involve repetitive motion. Administrative controls may even require the boss to employ one or more additional workers to help do the job.

Safety and health committees

But besides requiring personal protective equipment, engineering controls and administrative controls, there is no substitute for a powerful labor union to keep the employers honest.

Effective trade union education programs are essential to workers understanding their rights. And every local union needs a strong and educated safety and health committee as the first line of defense against employer neglect and abuse. This committee should have the full support of the union leadership, including the local’s executive board.

These committees are also the key source for on-the-ground information that can get federal and state officials to enforce the rules and regulations.