Labor Secretary-designate Pressed on Ergonomics

Three Democratic senators pressed Elaine Chao, Bush's choice for labor secretary, on whether she would enforce or rescind OSHA's recently issued ergonomics standard.

Senators gave President Bush''s choice to head the labor department, Elaine Chao, a generally warm reception at her confirmation hearing yesterday.

Chao won praise for her distinguished record at bringing diverse groups together in a career spanning theprivate, public, and non-profit sectors. Before the hearing was over a spokesperson for the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions said the only thing holding up Chao''s confirmation is final clearance from the F.B.I., which had not completed its obligatory background check of the nominee.

The only issue that at times threatened to spoil the party was ergonomics.

Three Democratic senators pressed Chao on whether she would enforce or rescind OSHA''s recently issued ergonomics standard, and Chao repeatedly declined to state her position.

"If there''s one thing I''ve already learned, it''s that this is the most visible issue in the department [of labor]," Chao told Sen Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

Chao said that one of her first responsibilities will be to make sure she understands the issue, which she said is very complicated, and she committed herself to a thorough review of the standard.

Perhaps most noteworthy was how rarely Republican Senators mentioned ergonomics.

Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., preferred to ask questions about updating OSHA'' rulemaking process and encouraging OSHA to spend more money on compliance assistance.

Chao said she looked forward to working with Enzi on these issues.

Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., brought up ergonomics, but only to say that after the release of the National Academy Sciences (NAS) study, "the question now is not whether to do something about ergonomics, but how." The NAS study supported the effectiveness of some workplace programs designed to reduce ergonomic injuries.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., urged Chao to pay attention to Occupational Hazards'' 2000 Champion of Safety Ron Hayes, an Alabama native and an occasional critic of OSHA.

Sessions said Hayes has criticized OSHA for caring more about paperwork than protecting workers and preventing injuries.

"I agree," replied Chao. "OSHA needs to be more on the preventive side."

by James Nash

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