Business and labor groups appear hopelessly deadlocked over what is probably the most important question being asked of OSHA''s ergonomics forum speakers: what should the government do to address workplace repetitive motion injuries?
Testifying yesterday were two professional organizations whose membership and recommendations appeared to transcend the stalemate: the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) and the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA).
During the two days of hearings at George Mason University in Arlington, Va., labor representatives have generally given the same testimony they did the last time OSHA had ergonomics hearings.
Unions want a strong hazard-based standard that would apply to all companies as soon as possible.
Almost without exception, industry speakers have also repeated their refrain from the past, calling on OSHA to provide more ergonomics guidelines, technical assistance, consultations, but not to issue another ergonomics regulation.
Business representatives argue that they are already addressing the issue, that a ''one-size-fits-all" repetitive motion injury rule would be impractical, and that compliance with a rule would only distract them from solving real problems.
One small crack in the wall of business opposition to new rulemaking appeared during Frank White''s testimony for Organization Resources Counselors Inc., an international management consulting firm.
White emphasized a very limited standard would be appropriate "if and only if" OSHA undertook a variety of steps including an "unprecedented outreach and stakeholder involvement effort."
Given the almost complete absence of scientific public health testimony at the forums -- neither the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) nor the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) are scheduled to appear -- the comments of ASSE and AIHA may loom somewhat larger than is customary.
John Henshaw, the nominee to be OSHA administrator, has been present throughout the two days of hearings, and because Henshaw is a past president of AIHA, this group''s position takes on added importance.
"AIHA recommends that OSHA formally promulgate a standard that is performance-based and provides meaningful guidance," said Sheree Gibson at Tuesday''s hearing on behalf of AIHA. "Some organizations will only respond to enforcement, there is ample history in the record of this phenomenon for other health and safety issues."
Gibson also called on OSHA to use a "multi-faceted approach" to workplace repetitive motion injuries, including voluntary programs.
During questioning by the OSHA panel, Gibson conceded that there is "no simple solution" to the problem of finding the clear compliance end-points demanded by employers. She referred to a number of checklists currently being used, and those contained in the rescinded OSHA ergonomics standard.
The president of ASSE, Eddie Greer, offered somewhat weaker support for a new ergo rule, calling on OSHA to move in "an incremental manner," and referring to the findings of an NAS report issued in January.
"ASSE accepts the findings of the NAS ergonomics study, and believes it indicates a basis for an ergonomics standard," Greer stated. He called on OSHA to combine a new standard with a cohesive outreach program that included "positive reinforcement actions" like penalty reductions or tax reductions for good faith efforts by employers.
In an interview before his testimony, Greer said he thought OSHA would try to push through a standard because there are still many employers, particularly small businesses, who are not addressing ergonomics in the workplace. He hoped the new standard "would avoid the the ''one-size fits all'' approach of the ergonomics rule Congress nullified in March."
Greer said he doubted the forums would be decisive in whether OSHA goes forward with new ergonomics rulemaking. Like other speakers at the forum, Greer noted there is little new information emerging at the forums, and he believed the decision about whether to promulgate a new standard would be made primarily because of political calculations.
"Hopefully they''ll take a few ideas from these forums and intertwine them into the standard to make it more useful," Greer said.
OSHA''s ergonomics forums will resume Friday at the University of Chicago.
by James Nash