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Metalworking fluids lawsuit update:

Court slams metal workers

A federal court has ruled that politics, not worker safety, should guide OSHA decision-making. The Third Circuit Court judges denied a request from two metalworkers unions to force OSHA to issue a standard on metalworking fluids. Over one million US workers are exposed daily to these respiratory and skin disease causing chemicals.

The Court ruled that the political choices of the Secretary of Labor must take precedence over the health needs of workers.

Ten years ago the United Auto Workers petitioned OSHA for a metalworking fluids "standard." NIOSH and various committees conducted research. Methods for reducing exposure were agreed upon. The UAW pushed forward, negotiating union contracts which lowered exposure limits by 90%.

Last October the UAW and the Steelworkers filed suit to require OSHA to complete the process and issue national regulations. But somehow, despite much activity around the issue, OSHA was able to claim it had never "officially" replied to the 1993 petition. In December 2003 an "official" letter was sent denying the petition. The Court’s ruling relied heavily on this formal reading of the situation.

The court expressed sympathy for workers exposed to disease causing fluids. They were upset that the denial took so long. "We trust that we will not again see delays such as were seen here," wrote the judges.

"In a perfect world," wrote the judges, "we would not have had the apparently unnecessary and surely lamentable ten year delay between UAW’s petition and OSHA’s formal response. But in the real world, the Secretary has broad discretion…."

In the real world thousands of metalworkers have their lives shortened by exposure to metal working fluids. Metalworking fluids need to be regulated in the real world where late is better than never.

One judge spoke directly to the political – not scientific – basis of the denial. He wrote, "what is at issue in this case is a change in regulatory policy coincident with a change in administration." He adds a footnote that reads in part: "A change in administration brought about by the people casting their ballots is a perfectly reasonable basis for an executive agency’s reappraisal of … programs." One wonders if a change in administration brought about by a Supreme Court decision is also a "reasonable" basis to tell a million workers they’re free to get sick, but perhaps the unions didn’t brief that point.



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