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Congress Votes to Cancel New Workplace Rules

A resolution (S. J. Res. 6) to rescind new rules for ergonomics in the workplace was approved by Congress during the week of March 5. The Senate passed the resolution, 56-44, on March 6, and the House followed with a 223-206 vote on March 7.

The resolution is the first of its kind under the Congressional Review Act (CRA) (P.L. 104-121), which created a process for Congress to disapprove a set of final regulations issued by a federal agency within 60 days of being issued. Under the CRA, federal regulations can be rescinded if a disapproval resolution is approved by both chambers and signed by the President. It is expected that the President will sign S. J. Res. 6.

The final ergonomics rules, which were issued by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) on January 14, are scheduled to take effect on October 14. A draft version of the rules was issued on November 22, 2000, for public comment.

The new regulations would require employers to adjust work environments to reduce the risk of injury to employees. Employers would be required to provide information for workers about repetitive motion injuries and their potential symptoms, to cover evaluations and follow-up treatment for affected workers and provide any workplace changes suggested by doctors, and to grant nearly full pay and benefits for employees with ergonomically-related injuries who take temporary leave from work. The measure also would require businesses with 11 or more employees to keep records on those workers’ injuries and treatments for at least three years.

Unions and other labor advocates support OSHA’s rules, citing the agency’s estimate that 650,000 workers miss time at work each year due to the repetitive use of poorly designed tools and work stations. However, most business groups and entrepreneurs oppose the new rules because they would be potentially costly. In addition, opponents contend that there is little proof that ergonomics actually will prevent injuries and reduce workers’ compensation claims.

Effects for Women
During the Senate’s floor debate, several statements highlighted the potential impact on women. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) said more than $20 billion is collected annually due to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), adding: “The impact of MSDs on women in the workplace is especially serious.” Although women make up 46 percent of the total workforce, she said, “women account for 63 percent of all lost work time due to ergonomic injuries, and 69 percent of lost work time because of carpal tunnel syndrome.”

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) described several professions characterized by repetitive motion injuries that employ high percentages of women, including home health caregivers, nurses, factory workers, cashiers and sales clerks, and data entry workers.

During House debate, Rep. Patsy Mink (D-HI) said, “Women are the ones who hold down the lowest-paying jobs in this country. They are the most that are on minimum wage, and they are the ones who are affected by the type of injuries for which we are trying to find some sort of protective safety regulations.”

Stating that she has “absolutely no quarrel with the idea” of ergonomics rules, Rep. Judy Biggert (R-IL) said the current set of regulations is “exceedingly costly, overly broad, and it wrongly presumes that every muscle strain or ache a worker suffers is caused by the workplace.”

Rep. Anne Northup (R-KY) said, “The worst thing we can do as a government is create regulations that would be so high in costs that they would push our best jobs outside this country.”

Possibility of New Regulations
Much of the debate in both chambers revolved around whether a new set of regulations could be offered in the future. If a set of rules is rescinded under the CRA, the law bars an agency from drafting and promulgating new regulations that are considered substantially similar. Supporters of OSHA’s new rules argued that passage of the disapproval resolution would prohibit any further ergonomics regulations, while opponents countered that a new set of rules could still be promulgated.

Sen. Jean Carnahan (D-MO) referred to Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, who now heads the department with jurisdiction over ergonomics concerns, saying that she had sought “assurances that the Department of Labor would take steps to provide legal protections to workers from repetitive stress injuries if Congress canceled the ergonomics regulation. Secretary Chao could not provide such assurances.”

However, during House debate, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) described a conversation with Secretary Chao, who “indicated her intention to pursue a ‘comprehensive approach to ergonomics,’” by “working on a new rule that would ‘provide employers with achievable measures that protect their employees before injuries occur.’”

On the Senate floor, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), a strong supporter of S. J. Res. 6, said, “Something needs to be done on ergonomics. I am willing to work on it.” Referring to the current rules, he said, “If you have a tree that is rotten to the core, you don’t try to prune it; you chop it down and plant a new one.” He added that there is “a lot of support from the business community to come up with the right way” to draft ergonomics regulations.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) agreed that OSHA’s rules are “unreasonable in terms of the requirements imposed on businesses and unworkable with regard to the vagueness of the standards with which employers are expected to comply.” However, she said that she plans to introduce “legislation that will require OSHA to draft a new ergonomics standard within 3 years,” because the agency “has an obligation…to write a revised rule that will reduce the number of MSDs in the workplace without penalizing businesses.”

In addition to the floor action, a hearing on the ergonomics rules was held on March 6 in the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education. Chair Arlen Specter (R-PA) reported on that hearing in floor remarks, stating: “I think it is fair to say that there was generalized agreement on the need for regulation. But there was total disagreement on the issue of what the cost of this regulation would be, and whether the regulation needed to be as complex as it is.”

The need for ergonomics rules was first suggested in 1990, when Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole called for a study on the matter, which resulted in a set of voluntary guidelines for meat-packing companies. Between 1995 and 1998, Congress barred OSHA from releasing a broader set of ergonomics rules. Conferees on the FY1999 omnibus spending bill (P.L. 105-277) then included $890,000 for the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to conduct a study on the effectiveness of ergonomics standards.

According to opponents of the ergonomics rules, the study was funded with the intention of delaying new regulations until the study could be completed. However, P.L. 105-277 did not contain such language.

In September 1999, the House approved a bill (H.R. 987) that would have required a delay of any new regulations until after completion of the NAS study, but President Clinton threatened a veto, and the Senate did not consider that measure or similar legislation.

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