Is the NSC Stepping Back from Workplace Safety?

Last month, the National Safety Council (NSC) decided to abandon its 13-year effort to complete a controversial voluntary ergonomics standard by surrendering its position as Secretariat to the American National Standards Institute's (ANSI) Z365 Committee on Management of Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders.

In the aftermath of the repeal of Washington State's ergonomic standard, the decision to drop out appears to have soured already strained relations between NSC and labor unions, and for some labor leaders it is further evidence that NSC's traditional commitment to workplace safety and health is waning.

No organization has expressed any willingness to replace the NSC, so it now appears unlikely that ANSI will ever approve the final draft of the long-awaited ergonomics standard.

"We are quite disappointed in NSC's performance," commented Bill Kojola, an industrial hygienist at the AFL-CIO who served on the Z365 committee. "They ignored their responsibility as secretariat and as an organization reputed to improve workplace safety and health." Kojola appeared to be just as disturbed by how the decision was made. "They literally at the last minute announced, rather than discussed, the decision during a conference call."

But in a letter to ANSI announcing the decision, NSC President Alan McMillan explained that as far back as February 2002 the council's board instructed NSC leadership "to proceed with divesting itself as secretariat of the committee." The NSC spent more than $531,000 on the standard.

In early October, ANSI ruled favorably on an appeal filed jointly by the National Coalition on Ergonomics (NCE) and 18 other industry organizations, who complained that the Z365 committee was unrepresentative, and that as secretariat NSC had violated ANSI procedural norms.

The ANSI appeals panel, in its decision, placed additional financial burdens on NSC, McMillan wrote, and "after considerable deliberations," the council believed that rather than appeal the decision it had to surrender its role as secretariat.

Dave LeGrende, director of occupational safety and health, Communication Workers of America, was on the Z365 committee though his union no longer participates in the NSC's labor division. LeGrende said NSC's decision to walk away from the ergonomics standard merely confirms a long-term trend.

"I have heard through others that they believe NSC wants to focus more on non-occupational safety and health issues, such as motor vehicles." One reason for the possible shift, LeGrende said, is that way, NSC need not become involved with labor unions, "and it can become even more industry-driven than it already is."

Asked why NSC would want to become more involved with corporations, LeGrende replied, "Because that's where the money is there's very little idealism at NSC."

The notion that NSC is stepping back from occupational health and safety is "absolutely untrue,' McMillan said in an interview. "We're a champion of occupational safety and the unions know that. We understand they're upset we didn't appeal the ANSI decision, but we have fiduciary responsibilities."

McMillan admitted that NSC was going to re-evaluate its position with respect to acting in the future as secretariat to ANSI voluntary standards. "We've taken a lot of heat from both sides, yet we have no say in the substance of the product."

He called the industry's legal efforts to block the ergo standard "unprecedented, to my knowledge." McMillan explained that due to the litigious nature of society, the costs of being a secretariat have risen, while the benefits have declined because posting the standard on the Internet makes it harder for the secretariat to recoup expenses through sales of the final standard.

Asked who will act as secretariat to the ergonomics standard, or future voluntary occupational health and safety standards, McMillan replied, "That's a good question, and I'm afraid I don't have a very optimistic answer. We have tried to find another secretariat, but I'm not sure who will step up."

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