Few Surprises at OSHA's Ergonomics Forum

July 17, 2001
Protesting puppets, procedural skirmishes and little in the way of\r\nnew substantive information marked an almost farcical opening of\r\nOSHA's ergonomics forums in a Washington, D.C., suburb yesterday.

Protesting puppets, procedural skirmishes and little in the way of new substantive information marked an almost farcical opening of OSHA''s ergonomics forums in a Washington, D.C., suburb yesterday.

Business groups generally applauded the process adopted by the Department of Labor (DOL), especially the decision to focus on just three questions during the four days of forums devoted to workplace repetitive motion hazards:

  • What is an ergonomics injury?
  • How can OSHA determine when such an injury is work-related?
  • How should government address workplace ergonomics injuries?

"Sham Forum!" cried labor representatives during a protest outside the George Mason University building just before the start of the event. About 100 union supporters marched in circles, appropriately enough, chanting their demands for a new ergonomics standard.

The AFL-CIO cried foul in part because DOL allowed more employer groups than worker advocates to speak at the forums. In addition, union members charged that DOL framed the debate by limiting the forums to the three questions raised by industry when it succeeded in scuttling the old ergo rule last March.

In her opening statement at the forum, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao fired back. "To make political attacks on the process and the people who are involved before we even start is both unreasonable and insincere," she said. "We can engage in sideshows, or we can pursue safety."

Chao defended her commitment to ergonomics, explaining that she and her senior staff "have spent more time working on ergonomics than on any other single issue." She defended the process used to select participants in the forum by noting that DOL has received equal numbers of complaints from business groups and independent organizations about the lack of speaking slots.

During the forum, however, business groups repeatedly praised the DOL process, while labor groups attacked it.

Chao promised that she would listen with an open mind to the testimony, and pleaded with participants to do the same, or risk experiencing the same setbacks that have bedeviled the issue for many years.

As the day wore on, there were few signs of open minds or new information. The conflict over how to deal with ergonomics appears only to have deepened since Congress killed OSHA''s previous standard, and labor representatives repeatedly expressed bitterness over the Bush administration''s recent handling of the issue.

Leading off the industry-organized panel was William Zollars, CEO of the Yellow Corp. and a spokesperson for the National Coalition on Ergonomics. Zollars explained how his company has voluntarily spent millions on a variety of measures that have cut ergonomic hazards.

Medical experts from the industry panel then testified that there is no effective way to reduce such hazards, no way to determine when ergonomic injuries are work-related, nor even any widely accepted definition of an ergonomic injury.

The apparent inconsistency was not lost on Paula White, OSHA''s director of federal/state programs, and one of the three members of a panel permitted to ask questions of witnesses.

Nortin Hadler, of the University of North Carolina Medical School attempted to clear up the confusion by explaining that since psycho-social factors are a key cause of ergonomics injuries, a company''s effort to respond may well make workers feel better.

Acting OSHA Administrator R. Davis Layne, and Joe Woodward, associate solicitor for occupational safety and health are the other two members of the OSHA panel. Woodward is the only OSHA participant who was present during the agency''s previous attempt to complete an ergonomics standard.

In the course of the industry-led discussion several protesters with large head-masks painted to make them look like business tycoon puppets, disrupted the proceedings shouting, "Sham! Sham!" before being led away by security guards.

"I feel betrayed and angry," said Richard Trumka, secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO in his testimony at the forum. "Secretary Chao limited the questions for discussion to only those raised by industry."

Peg Seminario, director of safety and health at AFL-CIO, appeared almost dismissive of the three questions the forum was intended to address. "Why re-open this?," she asked of how OSHA can determine what an ergonomics injury is and when it is work-related. OSHA''s new recordkeeping rule and the meat-packing guidelines provided definitions and answers to the questions, according to Seminario.

Seminario wondered why the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) was not present at the forum, since NAS has completed two recent studies on ergonomics. The NAS studies have been cited by both sides in the ongoing dispute, though the most recent results appeared more favorable to labor groups.

Other attendees were scratching their heads over the absence of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). An OSHA spokesperson explained that neither NAS nor NIOSH had asked to participate in the forums, and that OSHA sent no invitations to anybody.

As if to underscore their contempt for the proceedings, after the union representatives delivered their testimony and answered questions, they all departed for an AFL-CIO press briefing on ergonomics scheduled to conflict with the afternoon session of DOL''s forum.

by James Nash

About the Author

EHS Today Staff

EHS Today's editorial staff includes:

Dave Blanchard, Editor-in-Chief: During his career Dave has led the editorial management of many of Endeavor Business Media's best-known brands, including IndustryWeekEHS Today, Material Handling & LogisticsLogistics Today, Supply Chain Technology News, and Business Finance. In addition, he serves as senior content director of the annual Safety Leadership Conference. With over 30 years of B2B media experience, Dave literally wrote the book on supply chain management, Supply Chain Management Best Practices (John Wiley & Sons, 2021), which has been translated into several languages and is currently in its third edition. He is a frequent speaker and moderator at major trade shows and conferences, and has won numerous awards for writing and editing. He is a voting member of the jury of the Logistics Hall of Fame, and is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.

Adrienne Selko, Senior Editor: In addition to her roles with EHS Today and the Safety Leadership Conference, Adrienne is also a senior editor at IndustryWeek and has written about many topics, with her current focus on workforce development strategies. She is also a senior editor at Material Handling & Logistics. Previously she was in corporate communications at a medical manufacturing company as well as a large regional bank. She is the author of Do I Have to Wear Garlic Around My Neck?, which made the Cleveland Plain Dealer's best sellers list.

Nicole Stempak, Managing Editor:  Nicole Stempak is managing editor of EHS Today and conference content manager of the Safety Leadership Conference.

Sponsored Recommendations

Free Webinar: ISO 45001 – A Commitment to Occupational Health, Safety & Personal Wellness

May 30, 2024
Secure a safer and more productive workplace using proven Management Systems ISO 45001 and ISO 45003.

ISO 45003 – Psychological Health and Safety at Work

May 30, 2024
ISO 45003 offers a comprehensive framework to expand your existing occupational health and safety program, helping you mitigate psychosocial risks and promote overall employee...

DH Pace, national door and dock provider, reduces TRIR and claims with EHS solution

May 29, 2024
Find out how DH Pace moved from paper/email/excel to an EHS platform, changing their culture. They reduced TRIR from 4.8 to 1.46 and improved their ability to bid on and win contracts...

Case Study: Improve TRIR from 4+ to 1 with EHS Solution and Safety Training

May 29, 2024
Safety training and EHS solutions improve TRIR for Complete Mechanical Services, leading to increased business. Moving incidents, training, and other EHS procedures into the digital...

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of EHS Today, create an account today!