House Votes to Delay Ergonomics Rule

Replacing hazardous materials with safer ones is an important strategy for protecting workers and the environment.

The long-awaited Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulation on workplace ergonomics may be delayed until 2001 if a bill passed by the Republican-controlled House this week becomes law.

Called the Workplace Preservation Act, the legislation would prohibit OSHA from promulgating a proposed or final rule until the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) completes a study examining the connection between repetitive work tasks and injuries. The study is supposed to be completed by the spring of 2001.

It appears unlikely that the bill will ever take effect since it was approved by a 217-209 vote, far less than the margin needed to override an expected presidential veto. But even if the bill never becomes law, sources on Capitol Hill have suggested OSHA may be intimidated from promulgating ergonomics rules this year if a majority in Congress is on record opposing new regulations.

The vote in the House fell largely along party lines: most Republicans favored a delay on ergonomics while most Democrats wanted OSHA to issue the rules on time later this year.

In the House floor debate, Republicans denied they were trying to kill ergonomics regulations. They argued there is not yet enough scientific evidence to justify imposing such costly rules on American businesses, especially since the new rules may not even prevent repetitive motion injuries. OSHA estimates the draft regulation could cost businesses $3.5 billion per year, according to Rep. William Goodling, R-Pa., the chairman of the House committee on Education and the workforce.

"All we're saying is 'wait!'" Goodling said. "Get the [NAS] study we're paying almost 1 million bucks for it."

Democrats charged the Republicans are anti-worker and anti-safety, and that further study of the issue is not necessary since it has been proven that repetitive tasks injure more than 2 million workers each year.

"We can study this thing to death," said Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, D-Ca. Repetitive motion injuries cost U.S. businesses $15-20 billion a year in workers' compensation, and result in a total loss of up to $60 billion each year for the nation's economy, she added.

"This should be called the Workplace Persecution Act," Pelosi concluded, "because that's exactly what it does to the American worker."

Pelosi was not the only House member to toss rhetorical hand grenades at the opposition during the floor debate. Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Ca. charged Democrats wanted to move ahead on ergonomics because of their "subservience to union bosses" rather than any real interest in working people.

The final vote tally showed only 15 House Democrats were persuaded to vote for the bill delaying ergonomics regulations, while 17 Republicans voted against it.

A bill very similar to the one passed by the House has been introduced in the Senate by Sen. Christopher Bond R-Mo., but it is not yet clear whether the measure will be approved before the end of the year.

The Senate bill has 43 co-sponsors, all of them Republicans.

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