WASHINGTON — The House passed far-reaching legislation Thursday that would require the government to notify hundreds of thousands of workers that they are being exposed to hazardous substances and conditions. It also would force businesses to monitor and treat those employees for job-related ailments.
The legislation, which passed on a 225-186 vote along party lines, would give the government a significantly stronger role in workplace safety.
Approved amid one of this congressional session's fiercest, most complex lobbying battles, the measure has deeply divided business groups that normally march in lockstep and mobilized organized labor to work with environmental and health organizations it has often opposed on issues where jobs are at stake.
Under the bill, a nine-member risk assessment board would be established to review medical studies and identify groups of workers whose jobs put them at risk of developing disease. The government would notify all these workers individually and require their employers to pay for screening, counseling and medical treatment. In cases where workers were exposed in their previous jobs, current employers would be allowed to pass along the costs of health monitoring to the earlier employees.
The bill also would require companies in some instances to remove workers from dangerous positions and transfer them to other jobs without losing earnings or seniority. If alternative jobs cannot be found, employers would be required to maintain employees at current salary and benefit levels for a year.
A similar measure is expected to go before the Senate later this year. The White House, which strongly opposes the bill, has threatened a veto. The House vote fell short of the two-thirds margin that would be required to override a veto.
Diseases Hard to Trace
Although no hard statistics exist, supporters of the legislation say they believe that 100,000 workers die and 340,000 are disabled every year from exposure to hazardous substances and processes as part of their jobs. Often, resulting diseases such as cancer do not develop for decades, making them difficult to trace.
Current laws require the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to set workplace standards for such exposure, but critics say the agency has failed to do an adequate job.
"We're sliding backwards," Rep. Bruce F. Vento (D-Minn.) complained during the two days of debate on the bill. "When workers go into the workplace they have some rights, they have a right to know" the dangers they face.
But opponents warn that the legislation would bring forth a torrent of lawsuits--many frivolous--and become so burdensome that it would drive many companies out of business or overseas. "There's only so much chemophobia America's manufacturing can submit to without going overseas," Rep. Hamilton Fish Jr. (R-N.Y.) warned.
Boon for Trial Lawyers?
"I cannot think of a bill that would do more for the employment of trial attorneys," Rep. Daniel E. Lungren (R-Long Beach) said. The legislation specifically prohibits actions taken under its provisions from being used as the basis for filing lawsuits or claims, but does allow potential claimants to use as evidence new data that would be collected as a result of the bill.
With so much at stake, the vote forced many lawmakers to make a painful choice. "I feel uncomfortable because some of the groups I care about--the environmental and health care groups--are going to consider this a bad vote," Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Los Angeles) said, as he prepared to vote against the measure.
"This is one of the situations where it seems to me relatively obvious that we are acting a little precipitously and not being careful enough about what we are doing," Beilenson said. He supported a Republican-sponsored alternative that would have required a two-year study of whether a federal risk-notification program should be established. It failed, 234 to 191.
Raises AIDS Issue
A House amendment sponsored by Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton) would require that public health workers who work with AIDS patients be classified as a group at risk. Workers in chemical plants and in many heavy industries also would be likely to be classified as at-risk groups after review.
In an unusual twist, the bill has won support from some of the groups likely to feel the brunt of it, including such industrial giants as Union Carbide, Atlantic Richfield Co., General Electric and IBM.
"They essentially agree with us that where workers are at risk, they ought to be notified," said David Mallino, AFL-CIO director of legislation. "Frankly, I think they are going to find they are going to save a lot money," in part because long-term medical costs may be reduced.
Tom Graves, associate general counsel of the National Paint and Coatings Assn., said that his group was able to persuade lawmakers to modify several important provisions in the original version of the legislation.
Exempts Some Firms