Drawing on years of work experience in hundreds of workplaces, members of the UAW applauded OSHA's proposed ergonomics rule last week, after nearly three weeks of public hearings in Washington that have often been dominated by industry complaints about the proposal.
"The UAW strongly supports OSHA's proposed ergonomics program as a modest, but critical first step toward abating the largest single cause of injury and disability among American workers, and UAW members in particular," said Frank Mirer, the director of the union's health and safety department. Approximately 60 percent of the injuries in the auto sector are musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), according to Mirer.
A panel of experts made the union's case, arguing first that there was a sound scientific basis for the proposed rule, to counter the contention of industry -- and their Republican allies on Capitol Hill -- that rulemaking should be delayed until more research is done.
But the UAW spent most of its time providing real-life examples of how serious and widespread repetitive motion injuries are, and how effective ergonomic programs can be in dealing with the problem.
Several panel members said that because of widespread underreporting, MSDs are a far larger problem than anybody realizes.
"I can tell you from personal experience that people do not report MSDs until they get bad enough where they can no longer tolerate the job," said David Saksewski, a member of the UAW's health and safety department who also was a production worker for many years.
In work sites where there is no ergonomic awareness and where workers have no influence on how a task is performed, complaining about MSD injuries leads only to job restrictions and disputed compensation claims, according to Saksewski.
The UAW testified that there is a labor-management ergonomics committee at every one of the 300 Big Three auto plants where the union represents the workers.
The panelists came armed with Bureau of Labor Statistics data intended to prove how effective these programs can be: ergonomics programs at UAW work sites prevented at least 41,000 MSDs, according to the most recent government statistics.
During the question period after the presentation, the UAW won praise from an unexpected quarter: attorney Baruch Fellner, representing the United Parcel Service and Anheuser-Busch, complimented the union for the sophistication of its ergonomics program. Fellner then tried to poke holes in the UAW's claims of ergonomic success, by using what he called "simple arithmetic" to arrive at a 400 percent increase in reported MSDs between the mid-1980's and the present.
"It's simple-minded arithmetic that leads you to a wrong conclusion," countered Mirer, who argued that underreporting and unaudited data skewed the earlier figures, rendering them useless for purposes of comparison with the present.
Mirer was driven to rely on an automotive metaphor in response to a question from a fellow union representative, Eric Frumin, a member of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees (UNITE).
Frumin asked why none of the UAW's management counterparts had shown up at the OSHA hearing to testify about the successful ergonomics programs.
"They want to do the right thing," Mirer replied, "but they lack the horse-power within their own organizations to get it done."