The federal government and various states are arguing over how best to protect workers from potentially hazardous chemicals in the workplace. A ''right to know'' law goes into effect today in Massachusetts, giving workers the right to request information from their employers about substances they work with. Seventeen other states have right-to-know laws, and the Massachusetts law is considered to be one of the toughest.
But the laws in all 18 states may be in jeopardy. A new federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration policy may preempt state right-to-know laws.
OSHA says its ''chemical hazard communication standard'' is a great step forward for industrial workers. But critics of the federal law say it is weaker than some of the existing state laws, and should not be imposed on the states. The issue is being argued in the courts.
Laurie Kellogg, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH), a group representing about 90 local unions, says OSHA's new standard is ''unacceptable.'' Comparing it to the new Massachusetts' right-to-know law, she says there are major flaws.
Under the Massachusetts law, she notes, every employee in the state is protected. The OSHA law applies only to manufacturing workers.
OSHA officials estimate the standard, which will go into effect beginning in November 1985, will protect 14 million workers.
Yet Ms. Kellogg says in Massachusetts, the federal law will apply to ''maybe 20 percent of the workers. That's particularly a problem here,'' she says, because of the large number of hospital employees in the state, who won't be covered under the OSHA policy.
OSHA scientist Jennifer C. Silk explains that although the manufacturing sector accounts for only about 30 percent of the work force, it accounts for about half of the health problems attributed to chemical exposure.
But Kellogg says the more important issue is how information is to passed on to employees.
Under the Massachusetts law, 1,600 basic substances, and the thousands of compounds made of those substances, are designated as hazardous. Containers of these substances have to be labeled as to their contents. And an employee has the right to request more specific information from his employer.
Joseph Belloli, right-to-know coordinator for the state Labor and Industries Department, says this includes ''the chemical name, the common name, the health effect, spill procedure, and flammability'' of each substance.
If the employer fails to comply with the request within four days, Mr. Belloli says, the employee can refuse to work with the substance. The employer must also train his workers to properly handle any hazardous substances.
The OSHA policy, likewise, will require labeling of containers of hazardous materials, training programs, and some worker access to the specific safety information.
But instead of drafting a list of dangerous chemicals, OSHA will allow chemical manufacturers themselves to decide what hazards their products pose. Those manufacturers will be required to pass the information on to the industries that use the substances.
The responsibility for informing workers of potential hazards would then be left to the employer.
''That's the way it has always been,'' says Kellogg, ''and it's just like having the fox guard the chicken coop.''
Robert E. Hughey, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, says the OSHA policy assumes that all industries have the ''resources and the professionalism'' to set up an information system. ''We believe this is not the case,'' he says. ''The weak federal standards are a disservice to states which would adopt stronger methods.''
The OSHA hazard communication standard will be implemented in stages from November 1985 to May 1986. OSHA officials say the federal law will preempt state right-to-know laws already on the books.
Several states, including Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, and New Jersey, disagree, and have joined in a lawsuit to try to preserve their workers' rights laws.