Senate Hearing: Would an Ergonomics Standard Hurt Health Care?

Senators heard conflicting views on whether OSHA's proposed\r\nergonomics rule would impose financial hardships on patients and\r\nlong-term care providers.

Senators heard conflicting views on whether OSHA''s proposed ergonomics rule would impose financial hardships on patients and long-term care providers, during hearings held yesterday in Washington, D.C., by the Senate Subcommittee on Employment, Safety and Training.

"We are aware of no scientific data supporting assertions that ergonomics programs will harm providers or impede access to health care," asserted Rachel Weinstein, R.N., clinical standards group director of the Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA). The HCFA oversees Medicare and the federal role in Medicaid.

The ergonomics rule would have a "serious and adverse" impact on both patients and long-term care providers, countered Dr. Charles Roadman II, president of the American Health Care Association (AHCA). The AHCA represents 12,000 for-profit and non-profit assisted living and skilled nursing care providers.

Roadman cited the declining incidence of musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) injuries for long-term care providers as one reason why a new standard is not necessary. He argued that his industry is committed to balancing care for patients with providing a safe workplace for caregivers.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass, rejected the notion that any such balancing was necessary. "We have heard from many employers who have implemented an ergonomics program and saved money in the process," said Kennedy in his prepared remarks.

At several points in the hearing, Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., who chairs the subcommittee, and OSHA Administrator Charles Jeffress engaged in a little light-hearted teasing of one another.

During his testimony Jeffress said how glad he was the Senate has abandoned arguments that the ergonomics standard is based on "unsound science." Jeffress applauded Enzi for focusing now not on whether a rule is needed, but rather on how to pay for it.

Enzi led the Senate effort last month to delay OSHA''s ergonomics final rule until after the current pro-ergonomics President leaves office, leading some Democrats to charge the Senator with trying to kill the rule.

Enzi did a little teasing of his own, by stating how "impressed" he was by the long list of companies Jeffress said had actually saved money by instituting ergonomic programs.

Enzi said he was especially impressed that ergonomics has become a "profit center" at so many companies, without even a final ergonomics rule to force them to the bargaining table with OSHA.

The senator also asked Jeffress if these voluntary actions might suggest some employers actually cared about their employees'' health.

The exchange prompted Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., the ranking democrat on the committee to ask what he called "an Enzi-like question" of Jeffress.

"If so many companies are saving money with ergonomics programs, why don''t they all do it?," Wellstone asked.

Jeffress replied that one reason is because many business leaders are unaware of the cost savings of such programs.

A second reason, he said, is that many companies are driven by the "quarterly profit mentality," and lack the long-term horizon needed to recover the initial investment in ergonomics programs.

According to Jeffress it can take one year to recoup these costs.

by James Nash

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