The Labor Department, under congressional order, imposed new health and safety rules Tuesday to protect 1.7 million workers who clean up toxic waste dumps, operate toxic waste handling plants or respond to chemical spill emergencies.
The new rules will prevent 20 cancer deaths yearly, six to 20 deaths from cardiovascular, neurological and liver disorders and 1,925 injuries involving 18,700 lost work days annually, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said.
The rules cover 944,500 firefighters, 563,000 police officers, 14,000 workers employed in federal, state or local government cleanups of toxic waste dumps and thousands of other workers involved with toxic waste.
"This standard represents the first comprehensive approach to protecting public and private sector employees involved in the dangerous business of handling hazardous waste materials," said John A. Pendergrass, the assistant secretary of labor who heads OSHA.
The new rules apply to both private employers and government agencies. They are required, within a year, to develop plans for training, medical monitoring of workers, decontamination, emergency response and other actions needed to protect workers who are dealing with toxic wastes and emergency spills.
"It literally took an act of Congress to get this done," said Margaret Seminario, the AFL-CIO's health and safety director. The new OSHA program has its origins in the 1980 Superfund law, which mandated that OSHA and the Environmental Protection Agency work together to institute worker protections. However, proposed rules were blocked by the Reagan Administration.
When the Superfund was reauthorized in 1986, Congress specified that OSHA had to issue these standards within a year. But the Office of Management and Budget prevented promulgation of the rules last December, she said.