A regulation that would give employes access to their medical and hazardous-exposure records at work for the first time will be issued shortly by the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
While acknowledging the right of a worker to know of on-the-job hazards to his body, employer organizations have been fighting it on the grounds that it would allow the unions representing the workers, as well as the government, to have the same access, thus breaching the worker's right to privacy.
Industry spokesmen view the information-access regulation as another unwarranted intrusion by the OSHA into the internal affairs of their companies without demonstrable benefit in health or safety.
But gaining access to medical and exposure records has been a priority goal of many workers and their unions, particularly in the petrochemical industries, ever since the creation of the OSHA in 1971.
The proposed OSHA regulation -- expected to be changed only in some details in the final form -- would give employes and former employes or their designated representatives access to their medical and exposure records. The regulation draws a distinction between what is medical and what is an exposure record. The former includes pre-employment history and any illnesses or injuries on the job; the latter lists chemicals or other potentially hazardous substances to which a worker may have been exposed.
The consent of the worker would be required for disclosure of medical records but not for exposure records. Both the OSHA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, would have automatic access to the records without the worker's consent for purposes of research, standard-setting or enforcement.
OSHA argues that the new regulation merely carries out several sections of the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act giving workers the right to know as much as possible about hazards on the job.
Union leaders discount the claims of confidentiality. They point out that many persons now have access to an individual's medical records each time a worker's compensation or insurance claim is filed.
Industry and labor representatives agree on one thing, however: the virtual certainty that the regulation will end up in court, with one or both sides filing suit.