Senate Committee Approves Bill Requiring Ergonomics Rule

Despite the fierce and unanimous opposition of its Republican members, the Senate Labor Committee voted 11-10 yesterday to send to the Senate floor a bill that would force the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to issue an ergonomics regulation within two years.

The ultimate fate of the bill, S. 2184, is far from certain, however. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao opposes the legislation, and in a letter to the committee said she would recommend a presidential veto, should the measure make it to the president's desk.

Moreover, a companion bill in the House is stalled. One option being discussed by Capitol Hill insiders is to attach S. 2184 to the Labor Department's 2003 appropriation bill, but Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., promised he would filibuster such a move.

At times it appeared Republicans were already filibustering yesterday, in an effort to postpone a committee vote they knew they would lose. The vote in the packed hearing room came after nearly two hours of largely repetitive speeches by Republicans.

"This is like the old Clinton ergonomics rule, super-sized," complained Sen. Judd Gregg, R-NH, the ranking Republican on the committee. The Clinton administration's ergonomics rule Congress overturned last year exempted the construction, agriculture and maritime industries, while the new bill calls for a standard "in all industries where workers are exposed to workplace ergonomic hazards and there are economically and technologically feasible measures to control the hazards."

Enzi counted out five reasons why lawmakers should reject the new effort at ergonomics rulemaking, sometimes known as the Breaux bill, after John Breaux, the Democratic senator from Louisiana who, along with Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., sponsored the measure.

Enzi charged the Breaux bill:

  • Would use "tainted" evidence, because it requires OSHA to consider the record developed prior to the promulgation of the previous rule, when OSHA paid witnesses who supported its position;
  • Would compel regulating injuries that are not work-related;
  • Fails to respect the autonomy of state workers compensation systems;
  • Adopts a one size fits all approach that ignores the diversity of workplaces and workers;
  • Places an undue burden on small businesses.

"We have a basic and fundamental difference," replied Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who chairs the committee. He argued that ergonomics is the single most important workplace safety issue facing the nation and "this [bill] will save people from pain and suffering."

Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., agreed with Kennedy that the Breaux bill exposed profound differences between the two political parties.

"This is a matter of justice," said Wellstone. "It's about whether there will be justice for working people."

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