Give Workers Fair Warning On Hazards

The Supreme Court ruled on Mar. 20 that policies restricting women of childbearing age from certain jobs constitute illegal sex discrimination.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reckons such policies close tens of thousands of jobs to women. About 15 major U. S. companies have such policies, including B. F. Goodrich and Du Pont. Companies say the decision--involving Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls, a car-battery maker that barred women of childbearing age from jobs involving lead exposure--leaves them with unattractive options. They can expose women to potentially hazardous substances, risking damage to unborn babies and liability suits. They can seek to rid the workplace of those substances, upping costs significantly. They can shut down operations.

The Johnson Controls case makes it clear companies can't impose their own values about acceptable workplace risks. That's commendable: Workers should be free to make their own decisions. But while workers must bear the risks of their choices, companies must ensure that they have sufficient information to make reasonable and informed decisions. Courts will hold employers that fail to disclose workplace risks liable for failing to warn. Labor groups hope the ruling will force companies that no longer can remove the workers to remove the hazards. That is what should happen, of course, but at the very least companies should reassess their disclosures and, if necessary, expand them without too much effort and expense. This compromise would mollify business' fears that the Johnson Controls ruling will inevitably drive up costs and interfere with the ability of U. S. companies to compete overseas.

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