Organized Labor, OSHA Comment on Ergonomic Guidelines for Nursing Homes

Two years after rescinding OSHA's controversial ergonomics standard, the Bush administration has kept its promise to produce voluntary, industry-specific guidelines to prevent work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

But the passage of time and the fulfillment of the promise appear to have done little to quell the controversy concerning how OSHA should address ergonomics.

Representatives from business groups had not yet seen the final document and were unable to comment on it. Industry sources say they are not actively considering nor have they ruled out filing a lawsuit opposing the voluntary guidelines.

Organized labor wasted no time in dismissing the guidelines as too little and too late.

In a possible effort to head off the labor and industry disputes that have bedeviled previous OSHA efforts in this field, OSHA Administrator John Henshaw emphasized two points during a press conference earlier today (March 13).

"One, we will not be enforcing guidelines, these guidelines, or any guidelines they are advisory in nature," Henshaw asserted. "Two, just because we will not enforce guidelines does not mean that nursing homes can ignore their responsibility to address musculoskeletal disorders."

The first point appeared to be directed at representatives from business groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Coalition on Ergonomics, who sharply criticized OSHA's initial draft of the nursing home guidelines. Industry groups have expressed anxiety that the guidelines could be used for enforcement by a future administration and that the entire effort may legitimize what they consider the "phony science" of ergonomics.

Shortly after Henshaw's press conference on the guidelines, labor groups lambasted the document at their own briefing

"They have a series of recommendations, but what's missing is enough information as to how to do this that's really the problem," complained Peg Seminario, director of health and safety at the AFL-CIO. "How to set up a comprehensive ergonomics program, analyze jobs and worksites, and identify hazards."

Bill Borwegen, health and safety director of the Service Employees International Union said he felt the OSHA guidelines had "lowered the bar" with respect to addressing nursing home MSDs, particularly with respect to the failure to give employers advice about how many lifting devices to have per patient. He added that his union would give employers ergonomic guidelines produced by the Veterans Administration, because he believes "they are far superior" to the OSHA product.

The labor leaders also complained that the administration effort betrayed no sense of urgency in addressing what they called a very common and disabling workplace illness.

Asked at his press conference to estimate how many nursing homes had implemented the measures called for in the guidelines, Henshaw replied he had no information on that point. Borwegen said that less than 10 percent of nursing homes had comprehensive ergonomic programs.

Labor leaders belittled OSHA's enforcement of ergonomic hazards, noting that only within the past two weeks has the agency cited a single Idaho nursing home employer for three violations, with a proposed penalty of $900 per citation. Further lowering the profile of the effort, according to Seminario, OSHA has been almost secretive about these ergonomics enforcement actions.

Henshaw was asked at his press conference why OSHA had not done more to publicize its ergonomics enforcement effort.

"We're going to be balanced on this, and not be a single issue agency," explained Henshaw.

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