The partisan divisions provoked by OSHA''s latest ergonomics plan were on full display yesterday at a House Workforce Protections Subcommittee hearing. Mirroring almost precisely what happened at a Senate ergonomics hearing last week, House Republicans generally defended - while Democrats attacked - OSHA''s new program to address repetitive motion injuries.
Although he said he was worried OSHA''s enforcement against ergonomic hazards could go too far, in his opening statement subcommittee chair Rep. Charles Norwood, R-Ga., pleaded for members of Congress, unions, employers and employees to unite around OSHA''s plan in order to solve ergonomic problems.
"We can look at this as a plan that can work if, together, we make it work," said Norwood. "Or, we can look at this as someone else''s plan and hinder its implementation with cries that we need to start over and play by new rules that a majority has already rejected once."
It appeared that Democrats on the subcommittee have chosen the second option.
OSHA Administrator John Henshaw, the only witness at the hearing, explained his "four-pronged comprehensive" ergonomics program, an approach that calls for voluntary guidelines, additional research, expanded outreach, and enforcement under OSHA''s General Duty clause.
He failed to persuade Democrats that his approach was new, that General Duty Clause enforcement would work, or that voluntary guidelines would be sufficient to cut ergonomic hazards in many workplaces.
"Your program is not mutually incompatible with development of a standard," argued Rep. Major Owens of New York, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee. Other Democrats on the subcommittee also called on OSHA to develop a new ergonomics standard, as they maintained that too many employers would simply ignore voluntary guidelines.
Henshaw countered that Congress had already rejected OSHA''s previous ergonomics rule and that a new one could take more than four years to do a new one. Workers need protections now, he argued, and the agency could complete guidelines sooner than a new standard.
"Our goal now should not be to rush out another rule for the sake of issuing a rule," said Henshaw. "At some point, the rubber needs to meet the road; and, as Secretary [of Labor] Chao has said, the time is now."
In an indication of the re-emerging political salience of ergonomics, the powerful chairman of the House Committee on Education and Workforce, Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, made a brief appearance at the hearing.
Like his Republican colleagues, Boehner expressed general support for OSHA''s ergonomics plan, though, again like his fellow Republicans, he expressed mild concern the agency may be going too far in its efforts to fight repetitive motion injuries.
Boehner referred to the National Academy of Sciences report on musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) released in January of 2001 that stated no MSDs are uniquely caused by work and that a "generic solution" to ergonomic hazards was "neither feasible nor desirable."
The Ohio Republican maintained that what torpedoed OSHA''s ergonomics standard last year was the view that it was a "generic" solution, and he asked Henshaw how his approach avoided this pitfall.
The OSHA administrator replied that the agency''s guidelines would be developed where the science is clear, and that further research will pursue what is not known.
by Jim Nash