The Department of Labor (DOL) announced yesterday a significant shift in its ergonomics policy. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao plans to hold three national public hearings on ergonomics beginning in July to determine whether to regulate -- or not regulate --occupational hazards that cause repetitive motion injuries.
In addition, Chao set herself a September deadline to identify the final course of action on the issue. Until now, Chao has stoutly defended the administration''s view that it is premature to consider new ergonomics rulemaking and that deadlines on the controversial issue are counter-productive.
The administration''s position has been sharply criticized by Senate Democrats and Republican moderate Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
Pressure on the DOL, and the leverage of Republican moderates, has no doubt increased since the defection of former Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., gave control of the Senate to Democrats.
In the wake of the Jeffords affair, Specter has been given a leadership position in the Republican Senate caucus.
Chao''s options include new rulemaking, voluntary guidelines, technical assistance to companies, partnerships, or some combination of these possibilities.
The hearings will be held in Washington, DC on July 16, Illinois on July 20, and California July 24. Chao and senior DOL officials will participate in portions of the forums, along with other stakeholder groups.
"Defining the best approach for ergonomic injuries is not a simple process and we need everyone''s voice heard in the process," Chao said.
In March, Congress revoked the Clinton administration''s ergonomics standard using the Congressional Review Act (CRA). According to the CRA, any new ergonomics rule cannot be re-promulgated in substantially the same form.
Industry groups opposed to the Clinton rule complained a number of its provisions were especially toxic for business. There are at least three big unanswered questions left over from the old rule that participants will be grappling with when the ergonomics hearings open next month.
- Definition: how to define an ergonomics injury and determine if it is work-related?
- Trigger: when should a company install an ergonomics program?
- Workers'' Compensation: how to protect employees who report repetitive motion injuries without interfering in state workers'' compensation programs?
Perhaps the biggest question is whether there ought to be an ergonomics standard at all.
Chao has said her approach to the issue will be based on science and the need for prevention, incentives, flexibility, feasibility, and clarity.
by James Nash