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Medical Removal
Protection — and
More Good News

UE News, November 1998

Lots has happened since we spoke last. We’ve had a national election, and Rep. Newt Gingrich (R., Ga.) and some other Congressional neanderthals (try Sen. Faircloth of North Carolina) have been sent packing — thanks in part to a heavy labor voting turnout. This demonstration of political muscle by labor will help us on many fronts, not the least of which is worker safety and health. (Remember the old saying: "A rising sea lifts all ships.")

Let’s look at some changes on the health and safety front since the last issue of the UE NEWS:

  • New Medical Protections for Workers Exposed to Methylene Chloride. In 1997 OSHA adopted a new standard for methylene chloride, a solvent widely used in industry, lowering its eight-hour legal level of exposure from 500 to 25 parts per million in air. (See UE NEWS, May 1997) Methylene chloride — also known as dichloromethane, DCM and methylene dichloride — is used for metal degreasing and as an industrial paint stripper, as well as an aerosol propellant, a solvent for plastics, a blowing agent for polyurethane foams and many other uses. OSHA estimates it is regularly used by more than 200,000 workers at more than 90,000 worksites in the U.S.

As part of this standard (CFR 1910.1052), OSHA required employers to make regular medical checkups on workers (every three years for exposed employees under 45 years of age, and annually for those 45 years or older). OSHA required that workers be told about the results of these tests, but didn’t put anything in to protect the jobs of workers who tested positively on the tests. What is to stop the employer from transferring, downgrading or even firing an exposed worker because the worker was "no longer fit" to do his or her job? Nothing at all.

Now, after extended discussion between OSHA, unions and industry, a new "medical removal practice" provision has been added to the standard. It states that workers who are transferred from their regular job or even laid off due to overexposure to methylene chloride, based on a medical recommendation, must be paid their full hourly wage rate and maintain all seniority rights and employment benefits for up to six months! This goes into effect immediately (Oct. 22, 1998).

This is only the second OSHA standard (the precedent-setting 1978 lead standard is the other one) which protects wages, benefits and rights if workers are transferred or laid off after mandatory medical testing! So if methylene chloride (CH2C12) is used in your plant, and workers now begin to get medical tests for methylene-chloride hazards, make sure through your union that no one is transferred or laid off as a result unless he or she receives full pay and benefits. Then, after the effects of the overexposure wear off, the affected worker must be fully reinstated to his or her old job. This is a big win for workers! (Note: The physician or other licensed health care professional has to restrict the medical report to the employer only to methylene chloride-related issues. He or she is forbidden to reveal to the employer, orally or in writing, diagnoses which have no relation to occupational exposure to methylene chloride — Section 9d [ii].)

  • Ergonomics Study Funded! In the last issue of the UE NEWS this column reported that Senate Democrats with the aid of Republican Senators Specter (Pa.) and Campbell (Colo.) had blocked an $898,000, three-year study of ergonomic health hazards by the National Academy of Sciences. This study was a transparent attempt by anti-labor forces to block OSHA from issuing a much-needed ergonomics standard to protect workers from the painful, disabling conditions of carpal tunnel syndrome and repetitive strain injury. I noted last month that the House of Representatives had already passed this "study" measure, and that now it would go to a House-Senate conference committee. Unfortunately, anti-labor forces won; this stalling effort was passed and signed into law by President Clinton as part of the huge Omnibus Appropriations Bill.

However, two senior Members of Congress — Rep. Obey (D., Wis.) and Rep. Livingston (R., La.) — wrote to Labor Sec. Alexis Herman stating that by adopting this provision "it is in no way our intent to block or delay issuance by OSHA of a proposed rule on ergonomics." In part as a result of this letter, OSHA has already announced its intention to put the ergonomics standard on a fast track, and issue the standard next year.

  • OSHA/NIOSH Funding Increased. Congress awarded both OSHA and research arm NIOSH increased budgets for the next fiscal year. OSHA received an increase of $16.3 million in its budget, including important added funds for standards enforcement. NIOSH received an added $12 million for its Fiscal Year 1999 budget.

  • OSHA Attack Bills Die! With the do-nothing 105th U.S. Congress now adjourned, all Senate and House bills which were not acted on are now officially dead. That means the infamous Enzi-Gregg (misnamed "SAFE") bill, with its fines for workers, and the Ballenger attack bills (except for two minor changes, which passed) are now dead. They can, of course, be introduced again in the next session of Congress, but the pendulum is swinging away from these Gingrich-inspired attacks on labor.

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