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