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Democrats Attack OSHA Voluntary Ergo Plan

Ergonomics is once again provoking passionate debate on Capitol Hill, as Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and OSHA Administrator John Henshaw are grilled by Senate Democrats.

Ergonomics is once again provoking passionate debate on Capitol Hill, though for now all the action is in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao took a lot of heat at a Senate Labor Committee hearing yesterday as she sought to defend the administration''s approach to ergonomics from Democrats who charged the Bush plan was nothing more than a toothless replay of the failed strategies of the past.

In another sign that senators are getting serious about ergonomics, on Wednesday Sen. Breaux, D-La., introduced a bill that would compel the Labor Department to reissue an ergonomics standard within two years. Breaux voted to repeal the Clinton administration''s ergonomics rule and his bill is co-sponsored by a Pennsylvanian Republican who also voted against the previous standard, Sen. Arlen Specter.

Chao came to the hearing armed with an announcement she hoped would show forward progress in the administration''s effort to protect workers from repetitive motion injuries. She told committee members that OSHA has identified nursing homes as the first industry that will receive specific guidelines to reduce ergonomic injuries.

Her announcement did nothing to mollify her critics, however. Democrats on the committee complained that 13 months after the repeal of the Clinton rule, the administration had not developed a single guideline, had no timetable for issuing them, had not identified which industries would receive them, and had no viable enforcement strategy to go after companies that ignore the voluntary guidelines.

"What we have here is a plan for a plan," charged Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn. "Why did it take you a year to come up with a plan for a plan?"

Democrats attacked all four elements of the administration''s ergonomics plan: voluntary guidelines, additional research, compliance assistance and enforcement under the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act.

Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., quoted an article by Labor Department solicitor Eugene Scalia, who called using the General Duty clause to enforce against ergonomics hazard "dreadful and embarrassing."

Other Democrats asked how the administration could increase compliance assistance when it is cutting spending for training by millions of dollars.

Chao, flanked by OSHA Administrator John Henshaw, defended the administration''s approach, saying that a new standard would take 4 1/2 years, while voluntary guidelines would offer protection more quickly.

When pressed as to how long it would take to issue the guidelines, Henshaw replied, "Very soon."

His response provoked derisive laughter from many of the injured workers who filled the hearing room at the invitation of labor unions. OSHA had originally planned to release its ergonomics program in September of 2001, but citing the terrorist attacks postponed the announcement until earlier this month. During the months of delay, "very soon" was the answer often given by Labor Department spokespersons when pressed on when the new ergonomics plan would be issued.

Chao appeared to anticipate the attacks, opening her testimony by quoting the poet Tennyson, "Cannon to the right of them, cannon to the left of them, cannon in front of them, volley and fire." But during the hearing the labor secretary had strong covering fire from her right, in the form of Republican senators who blasted the repealed Clinton standard and praised the Bush plan.

"The approach you''re taking will be a quick way to get some reductions in ergonomic injuries," asserted Michael Enzi, R-Wyo.

Republicans agreed with Chao that the Bush ergonomics plan was superior to the Clinton regulation because the new voluntary approach would:

  • Reach workers in all industries;
  • Reduce hazards before an injury occurred, rather than relying on an injury to trigger enforcement;
  • Offer more flexibility and practical assistance to industry than a "one-size-fits-all" rule.

Henshaw argued that even though OSHA has proposed reduced spending in training and the elimination of personnel in enforcement, he will be able "to do more with less" by more efficient management. OSHA plans to increase the number of inspections next year and through Web-based training expects to reach more people even while spending less money.

While talking to reporters after the hearing, Henshaw was asked why the administration could not pursue a "dual-track" approach, and work on a standard over the long term while issuing guidelines for more immediate protection.

Henshaw replied that when OSHA worked on its ergonomics standard in the previous administration, it consumed so many resources many other hazards were not addressed. If the administration has its way, there will be even fewer of these resources next year.

In fiscal year 2003 the administration proposed reducing OSHA''s spending on standards by almost 10 percent, a move that would eliminate 10 full-time positions.

by James Nash

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