A Year Later and Still Waiting for Action on Ergonomics

One year after the repeal of the standard by Congress and still no word on the government's promised plan for ergonomics. Some senators are tired of waiting.

One year after the repeal of the standard by Congress and still no word on the government''s promised plan for ergonomics.

March 6, 2001 was the beginning of the end for the ergonomics standard. On that date, the U.S. Senate voted to repeal the standard, using what was then the little-known Congressional Review Act (CRA). Members of the House of Representatives followed suit on March 7.

Under the CRA, Congress can pass a joint resolution of disapproval of regulations even if the regulations are already in effect. The president can veto the resolution, but that did not happen in the case of the ergonomics standard. President George W. Bush signed the legislation repealing the standard on March 20, 2001.

In June 2001, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao said she planned to hold hearings on the issue of ergonomics in the workplace. At that time, Chao said she was "bringing everyone to the table to get this important issue moving forward and resolved."

She said she would identify a final course of action on the issue by September 2001. She held the promised hearings, but the events of Sept. 11th delayed work on the administration''s ergonomics policy. Nearly six months after the deadline Chao set for herself, workers and the business community alike wait to hear what the department plans to do.

Meanwhile, some members of Congress have grown tired of the delay.

"Despite repeated promises they have failed to provide new protections for America''s workers," says Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) of the DOL. "The American people deserve to know why the administration has failed to act."

On March 14, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee chaired by Kennedy will hold hearings on the Labor Department''s promise to take action on ergonomics.

To prepare for that hearing, Kennedy and Democratic Senators Tom Harkin of Iowa, chairman of the Appropriations Committee''s Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee''s Subcommittee on Employment, Safety and Training, sent Chao a letter, asking for information on the steps taken by the Labor Department to fulfill its commitment to "pursue a comprehensive approach to ergonomics."

Saying that ergonomics is a "very high priority" for the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, the senators asked for:

  • A description of the information gathering, review and decision-making process the department has employed in developing its comprehensive plan on ergonomics. The letter asked Chao to "identify the department, White House and other executive branch agencies and offices that have been involved in the decision-making process," as well as a "list of individuals, including title and agency, who have been involved in the development of recommendations and options and the decision-making process" from the Labor Department, the White House and other executive agencies.
  • Copies of all relevant correspondence and memorandums, including e-mails, prepared by Labor Department employees or received by Labor Department employees since Jan. 21, 2001 pertaining to ergonomics and the development of an ergonomics plan.
  • Any analysis of injury and illness data or workers'' compensation data on ergonomic injuries and work-related musculoskeletal disorders prepared by or for the Labor Department since Jan. 21, 2001.

The Labor Department is reviewing the letter, says spokeswoman Sue Hensley. No determination has been made as to what, if any, documents will be released to the committee.

The senators asked for the documents by March 11, in time to review them for the March 14 hearing. Chao will testify before the committee.

Meanwhile, labor groups are turning up the heat on the ergonomics issue, with Eric Frumin, safety director for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) complaining, "Bush has done nothing about ergonomics but tell workers to trust their own bosses…. We need to fight for safe jobs every place we can: on the shop floor, at the bargaining table and in the halls of Congress."

Elizabeth Kelleher, the health and safety specialist for the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH), says that when the the ergonomics standard was repealed last year, the Bush administration "tried to conceal their ill-will toward worker safety by claiming that they would act very quickly to provide some alternative method of protecting workers from ergonomic hazards."

They had to admit the issue was urgent, continues Kelleher, because they acknowledged that ergonomic hazards cause about 50,000 lost-time injuries every month.

"Here it is a year - and 600,000 lost-time ergonomic injuries later - and the Labor Department hasn''t produced a plan or even the outline of a plan. They certainly have a lot to answer for," Kelleher believes.

A year ago, Chao identified the following set of principles that the DOL will use as a starting point for creating a new ergonomics approach:

  • Prevention - The approach should place greater emphasis on preventing injuries before they occur.
  • Sound Science - The approach should be based on the best available science and research.
  • Incentive Driven - The approach should focus on cooperation between OSHA and employers.
  • Flexibility - The approach should take account of the varying capabilities and characteristics of different businesses.
  • Feasibility - Future actions must recognize the costs of compliance to small businesses.
  • Clarity - Any approach must include short, simple and common sense instructions.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) predicted the standard could help prevent as many as 4.6 million ergonomic-related injuries in a 10-year period and save businesses some $9 billion a year in healthcare, workers'' compensation and other costs.

Business groups weren''t impressed by OSHA''s promise of savings, claiming the standard could cost as much as $100 billion to implement.

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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