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Final rule near on PPE provided by employer
Occ health urges prevention before equipment
A Department of Labor rule that would require employers to pay for certain personal protection equipment (PPE) will become a final Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rule by November.
The rule proposed 10 years ago has been needed to clarify who will supply necessary safety equipment to workers in industries that put them at different worksites, according to Susan Randolph, MSN, RN, COHN-S, FAAOHN, clinical instructor of occupational health nursing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and past president of the American Association of Occupational Health Nursing (AAOHN).
Randolph explains that whereas workers who are at a fixed site generally have PPE supplied by their employers, people who move from site to site often are expected to provide their own PPE. They, along with workers in the meatpacking, poultry, and construction industries and groups that are historically most vulnerable to injury, such as low-wage and immigrant workers, are expected to especially benefit from the rule.
Debate over who would pay for the equipment and what equipment would fall under the rule resulted in the rule languishing for 10 years after it was first announced by OSHA in 1997. "If an employee works for several different companies, and if I am employer number one, do I want to pay for equipment that that employee is going to use at employer number two? I can see how that would be a sticking point," Randolph concedes.
Of equal concern to occupational health nurses, she says, would be establishing how the PPE — regardless of who is paying for it — is monitored for wear and proper use. "If there is the expectation that the employee is going to bring his or her own PPE, who is making sure it's an appropriate PPE? That's the whole piece — making sure it's appropriate, to protect against the hazard, and that it's being maintained," she adds. "Someone needs to be making sure that equipment is in good shape, that it's being used correctly, and that it's being inspected."
Lawsuit forced OSHA action
The announcement that OSHA would finalize the PPE rule came just weeks after the AFL-CIO and the United Food and Commercial Workers unions filed suit against the Department of Labor for failing to finalize the rule. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ordered the Bush administration in February to respond to the suit within 30 days. Instead, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao asked the court to postpone acting on the suit and announced the rule would be made final no later than November.
"This rulemaking has taken far too long," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney in a prepared statement. PPE included in the rule as being covered by employers include respirators, chemical-resistant clothing, metal mesh gloves, lifelines, lanyards, safety glasses, and face shields — all important safety equipment, Randolph agrees, but to an occupational health nurse, PPE should be workers' last line of defense against injury and exposure.
AAOHN provided input during the comment period after OSHA proposed the rule in 1999, in which it supported the rule requiring employers to provide PPE, but Randolph expressed concern that PPE might lead to less emphasis on prevention. "The need for PPE is identified based on the hazard, but ideally you minimize the hazard through other means and use the PPE as a last resort," she says. "You want to engineer out the hazards and eliminate them, so you're eliminating the need for an employee to do something like wear PPE."
That's not always possible, Randolph concedes. "So sometimes PPE is required to protect the worker from hazards, and in that case, to protect the worker, the company should provide it," she says. "And a lot of [data on when and where PPE is required] is specified in standards — respiratory, hearing, and pathogen standards that set out what is needed to protect employees from getting injured or hurt doing the job."
For every job there needs to be a hazard assessment, Randolph points out, and PPE matched to the hazards identified. "Along with that there has to be [provisions for] care and maintenance of the PPE, education for employees about why they have to wear it and how to wear it correctly," she adds. "There needs to be observation, whether it's the occupational health nurse doing walkthroughs or a supervisor checking to make sure that if people aren't doing what they are supposed to [to protect themselves], that they are reminded."
[Editor's note: To read the proposed Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rule on employer provided personal protective equipment, go to www.osha.gov. At A-Z Site Index, click on "P," then on "Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)." Click "What OSHA Standards Apply?" Under "Federal Registers," Click on "Employer Payment for Personal Protective Equipment. Notice 69:41221-41225, (2004, July 8)"]
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