"The ergonomics forums are a thinly veiled attempt by the secretary of labor to delay the most significant health and safety issue facing workers today," declared Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
Kennedy spoke Wednesday, July 18, at a Senate subcommittee hearing on ergonomics held one day after the Washington, D.C., phase of the Department of Labor''s (DOL) forums ended.
Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., who chairs the subcommittee, said he held the hearings "to begin to fill in the gaps created by the administration''s forums."
Republicans on the subcommittee, Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., and Sen. Tim Hutchinson, R-Ark., used their time to defend OSHA''s current process and to malign OSHA''s previous ergonomics process. Enzi charged that under President Clinton OSHA''s mind was made up to issue an ergonomics standard and Hutchinson recalled how OSHA paid its witnesses $10,000 to testify at public hearings.
Perhaps the biggest gap in the ongoing DOL forums, according to Wellstone and Kennedy, is the absence of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).
When OSHA was on the verge of issuing its final ergonomics rule last year, many Republicans demanded the agency wait until NAS completed its study on musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in the workplace, research that, they said, cost taxpayers $1 million.
But Republicans were confounded when the NAS study concluded that MSDs are caused by stressful work environments and that prevention efforts can reduce the risk of work-related MSDs. Lawmakers and industry groups who oppose an ergonomics standard now generally avoid mentioning the government-sponsored research.
The NAS also called for more research on MSDs, especially on the costs and benefits of intervention methods, the one result often mentioned by opponents an ergonomics standard.
But Jeremiah Barondess, the chair of the NAS study and a witness at the Senate hearing, cautioned against making too much of this part of the study, as scientific research is never complete.
Wellstone and Kennedy charged that by not inviting the NAS to speak at the forums, the Bush administration was trying to bury the report, and thus weaken the case for a new ergonomics standard.
In an interview, an OSHA spokesperson explained that no individuals or groups were invited to testify at the forums, aside from the general Federal Register notice. An NAS spokesperson said the academy does not testify unless specifically invited.
OSHA also said that David Rempel, a member of the NAS panel on MSDs and the workplace, would testify at the ergonomics forum to be held at Stanford University. It did not appear, however, that Rempel would be speaking on behalf of NAS or the study.
:Is it possible you''re trying to build a process to support a decision you''ve already made?" Wellstone asked Chris Spear, assistant secretary of labor for policy. DOL sent Spear to the hearings instead of Chao, and her absence from the hearing appeared to add insult to injury for subcommittee Democrats.
Spear defended DOL''s process, arguing that since OSHA''s previous ergonomics rule was nullified by Congress, it was important to establish a new "independent" record.
"Independent of what?" asked Wellstone.
"Independent of the previous process that led to a nullified rule," Spear replied.
The NAS study was not part of the previous process, however, as Kennedy pointed out, and the study purports to answer the very questions the government is now asking again in the ergonomics forums: the definition of MSDs and their relationship to work.
Spear did say the NAS study has been submitted into the record and it will be reviewed.
When asked by Kennedy if he had read the NAS study, an embarrassed Spear confessed, "I have not perused the entire study."
Kennedy provoked the biggest laugh of the day when he attempted to finish his tough questioning of Spear on a positive note.
"You were sent up here to do a job," said Kennedy, "and I admire you for trying to do it."
by James Nash