Employee 'right to know' laws helping make workplace safer

What started out here as a classic business vs. labor clash has ended with both sides claiming victory. Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis has signed into law last Friday a bill that gives workers throughout the state a ''right to know'' what potentially hazardous chemicals they may be working with.

The measure requires businesses to label 2,500 toxic or dangerous substances used by workers on their jobs, and to provide information on the toxic chemicals to workers, to the workers' doctors, and in some cases to concerned members of the community.

Massachusetts is the 14th state to produce such legislation, but business and labor leaders here are calling the Massachusetts ''right to know'' law a model for the nation. Ohio and Pennsylvania are in the process of developing their own ''right to know'' laws.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been working on a national disclosure policy for toxic materials. The OSHA proposal is not expected to take effect until late 1984 at the earliest.

The OSHA rules would make it the responsibility of employers to inform their workers about any potentially hazardous materials they use and to train workers to handle them safely. OSHA will place reponsibility for properly labeling toxic chemicals on the companies that manufacture them. The government will also require the manufacturers to provide detailed fact sheets on the substances to companies using toxic chemicals.

Federal officials estimate start-up costs to industry of complying with the OSHA regulations at $600 million, with annual compliance costs of up to $100 million.

The Massachusetts measure, which becomes effective in early 1984, includes a mechanism to resolve disputes over the use of toxic substances, and it provides protection against disclosure of company trade secrets.

The bill as originally proposed earlier this year called for businesses to provide information on up to 100,000 substances. Business leaders complained that the list was too long and included common materials.

During five months of negotiations - led by Dukakis staff members - the proposal was whittled down into a bill acceptable to the business coalition of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts High-Tech Council, and the Massachusetts Business Roundtable and the AFL-CIO's Solidarity Council.

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