Reaction Continues for Ergonomic Proposal

Response to the Department of Labor's business-friendly approach of voluntary guidelines to help employers reduce ergonomic injuries is evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, business groups and workers' rights groups.

Response to last week''s announcement that the Department of Labor would pursue a business-friendly approach of voluntary guidelines and compliance assistance to help employers reduce musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) has been, not surprisingly, evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, business groups and groups representing workers'' rights and health and safety.

Friday, the Department of Labor unveiled what it calls "a comprehensive plan" designed to reduce ergonomic injuries through a combination of industry-targeted, voluntary guidelines, "tough" enforcement measures, outreach and research and dedicated efforts to protect Hispanic and other immigrant workers.

"Our goal is to help workers by reducing ergonomic injuries in the shortest possible time frame," said Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. "This plan is a major improvement over the rejected old rule because it will prevent ergonomics injuries before they occur and reach a much larger number of at-risk workers."

As part of the Department of Labor''s cross-agency commitment to protecting immigrant workers, especially those with limited English proficiency, the new ergonomics plan includes a specialized focus to help Hispanic and other immigrant workers, many of whom work in industries with high ergonomic hazard rates.

Omar Henriquez, Youth and Immigrant Program Coordinator for the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), said his organization is gratified that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) expressed special concern for those vulnerable workers, but added, "We know that immigrant workers would be much better protected from ergonomic hazards by an enforceable regulation instead of a promise to develop largely voluntary guidelines at some unspecified time in the future."

The Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) represents a number of immigrant workers in industries with high ergonomic injury rates. Union President Bruce Raynor attacked the administration''s plan for ergonomics, saying, "The Bush administration is only interested in one thing: keeping strong OSHA standards and inspectors away from America''s jobsites and injured workers. It''s time for action; not excuses, delays or cover-ups."

He notes that many companies, such as Levi Strauss and Xerox Corp., already have worked with UNITE and other labor groups to establish ergonomics programs "because it saves them money, and can help keep manufacturing jobs in America."

Those companies, said Raynor, cut the cost of their workers'' compensation claims by more than 50 percent. Xerox told OSHA in 2000 that since 1992, it saved $7 million each year from its ergonomics programs, compared to a $3.4 million cost for the ergonomics program in 1999.

Although Raynor was arguing for an ergonomics standard rather than guidelines, the experience of Levi Strauss and Xerox seem to support the administration''s contention that voluntary guidelines can be an effective tool to reduce the number of MSDs.

Thomas M. Sullivan, chief counsel for Advocacy for the Small Business Administration, claims that research conducted by the SBA found that the Clinton administration''s ergonomics standard would have cost up to 15 times more than OSHA''s $3 billion estimate. "Small business owners made it clear that no one wants to protect employees more than they do. But prescriptive, one-size-fits-all regulations can sometimes hurt more than help," says Sullivan. "The Department of Labor appears to have listened to the concerns of small business in developing its new approach to curbing workplace injuries."

Senator Kit Bond (R-Mo.), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, calls the Labor Department''s new strategy "a sensible and appropriate approach," particularly for small businesses owners. Calling the plan proactive, he says it gives employers information so that they can prevent injuries before they happen. "Guidance will help get the injury rate down further and faster," Bond adds. "OSHA will be able to move quicker under a guidelines approach than under regulations. Guidelines can be updated as new information becomes available and the science changes."

Bond, along with many other opponents of a formal ergonomics standard, claims that there is not enough scientific research to support the need for a mandatory ergonomics standard. The guidelines proposed April 5 by the Bush administration call for the creation of a national advisory committee. Part of their task will be to advise OSHA on research gaps. OSHA says it will work with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to encourage research in the area of ergonomics and prevention of MSDs.

"With researchers on all sides scratching their heads about the causes of these types of injuries, we must take the time to craft rules without sacrificing science," advises Randel Johnson, U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president for Labor Policy. "It remains to be seen how new and increased enforcement under these guidelines will play out, but overall the Department of Labor has proposed a balanced approach."

Richard Levinson, MD, DPA, associate executive director of the American Public Health Association (APHA), argues that the scientific evidence behind reducing and eliminating workplace injuries is clear. The Institute of Medicine recently released a report, "Musculoskeletal Disorders and the Workplace," which found a strong link between exposure to ergonomic hazards in the workplace and MSDs. According to the report, 1 million people took time off from work in 1999 to recover from MSDs and the economic burden of MSDs is estimated to be $50 billion per year. The scientific evidence also showed that the injuries could be prevented, says Levinson.

"It is very clear that American workers need a real ergonomics standard, that there is scientific data supporting a standard and that Secretary Chao has chosen to ignore this information in favor of big business interests," Levinson claims. "We were dismayed at the repeal of OSHA''s standard last year and remain committed to the development and implementation of a national and enforceable ergonomics standard."

The American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine agrees with the stance taken by APHA, saying that there is a significant body of scientific and epidemiological evidence linking MSDs and workplace hazards.

"ACOEM has advocated and will continue to advocate for an ergonomics standard," says ACOEM President Dean A. Grove, MD, MPH. "Although the previous standard issued by OSHA was fatally flawed, there is strong scientific evidence that supports the need for a standard. Fundamental to an effective standard, however, is a process to verify the diagnosis of a musculoskeletal disorder and to determine that the injury or disorder is directly related to workplace duties."

Grove says ACOEM "is particularly saddened that after more than a decade of ongoing debates, hearings and scientific reviews, the administration was unable to bring together members of the business and labor communities to iron out a compromise plan to at least pursue an ergonomics standard in high risk industries."

OSHA Administrator John Henshaw says his agency will immediately begin developing industry and task-specific guidelines to reduce and prevent MSDs and hopes to release the guidelines for selected industries this year. OSHA will also encourage other businesses and industries to immediately develop additional guidelines of their own, and says enforcement efforts will be targeted at "bad actors."

The Department of Labor will place special emphasis on industries with the sorts of serious ergonomics problems that OSHA and DOL attorneys have successfully addressed in prior 5(a)(1) or General Duty clause cases, including those involving Beverly Enterprises and Pepperidge Farm. For the first time, OSHA claims, it will have an enforcement plan designed from the start to target prosecutable ergonomic violations.

"Bureau of Labor Statistics'' data show that musculoskeletal disorders are already on the decline. This plan is designed to accelerate that decline as quickly as possible," says Henshaw. "Thousands of employers are already working to reduce ergonomic risks without government mandates. We want to work with them to continuously improve workplace safety and health. We will go after the bad actors who refuse to take care of their workers."

For more information about OSHA''s proposed ergonomic guidelines, see the OccupationalHazards.com article, "OSHA Says Ergonomic Guidelines are the Way to Go."

by Sandy Smith (ssmith@penton.com)

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