Congress Haggles Over Ergonomics, OSHA Budget

Faced with the threat of a filibuster by a number of Democratic senators, Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., withdrew an amendment to the OSHA 2000 appropriation bill that would have delayed the agency's promulgation of an ergonomics standard.

Faced with the threat of a filibuster by a number of Democratic senators, Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., withdrew an amendment to the OSHA 2000 appropriation bill that would have delayed, for at least a year, the agency's imminent promulgation of an ergonomics standard.

After conceding defeat in this first battle over ergonomics, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., vowed Oct. 7 from the Senate floor that he would find a way to get the substance of Bond's amendment passed by Congress this year.

The way was cleared for the Senate to approve later that day a spending bill that includes a $33 million increase in OSHA's 2000 budget over last year's level. A few days before, the House Appropriations Committee voted for a $16 million cut in the agency's budget, setting up potentially complicated negotiations when the Senate and House meet to reconcile their differences.

The conflict over ergonomics also may be on the agenda when the two houses of Congress iron out the final version of the Labor Department's budget, according to Jay Power, legislative representative of the AFL-CIO.

"We were pleased with the results," Power said when asked to comment about the Senate action. "But we don't expect for a minute the opposing camp is going to fold its tent and go away, and neither are we." Power predicted the House Republican leadership could still attach a measure delaying ergonomics to its OSHA appropriations bill and attempt to add it to the final bill during the conference with the Senate.

With respect to ergonomics, about the only thing labor and industry representatives appeared to agree on was that somehow each had managed to win an important victory on the Senate floor. "We are thrilled that Lott intends to send the Bond language, which would delay an ergonomics rule, to the president before this Congress adjourns," said Jennifer Krese, director of employment policy for the National Association of Manufacturers.

In a year filled with talk of a looming "train wreck" over the Fiscal Year 2000 budget, the proposed ergonomics rule appears to be providing Congress and the White House with one more issue to fight about. Labor Secretary Alexis Herman has said she would recommend President Clinton veto any bill that delays ergonomics regulation.

Bond, who chairs the Senate Committee on Small Business, in the Oct. 7 floor debate accused OSHA of being "on a rampage to impose new mandates with no clear thresholds or guidance to address the causes of these injuries." Instead, according to Bond, OSHA says to employers: "We know there's a problem, and we can't figure it out. So we expect you to figure it out for us, and we will inspire you with fines and penalties if you don't."

For their part, Democratic opponents of Bond's amendment kept hammering on the point that musculoskeletal injuries afflict 600,000 workers a year. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., concocted a novel way to tie that figure to the traditional delaying tactic used by the Senate's minority party when it wants to defeat legislation it does not like. Durbin called on the Senate to debate the ergonomics amendment one minute for every 250 workers injured.

"By my calculation," he said, "that comes out to about 24,000 minutes, and it turns out to be a 40-hour work week. Wouldn't it be interesting if the members of the Senate had to stand in their workplaces four and five hours at a time debating this amendment and then talk about the aches and pains they suffer?"

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