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Ergonomics Plan Endorsed by Senate Committee

Legislation (S. 2184) that would require the Department of Labor (DoL) to issue a new ergonomics standard to prevent workplace injuries was approved, 11-10, along party lines by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions on June 19.

Sponsored by Sens. John Breaux (D-LA) and Arlen Specter (R-PA), the bill would halt further efforts to implement the President’s plan, which calls for voluntary compliance by businesses to reduce workplace injuries. Instead, the measure would require the DoL to finalize new workplace rules within two years, and would require the standard to cover workers in all industries who are “exposed to workplace ergonomic hazards.”

Additionally, S. 2184 would give the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) congressional authority to implement the new ergonomic standard and would require the new rules to emphasize “prevention of injuries before they occur.”

The lengthy debate prior to the vote reflected the long-running and intense disputes between labor groups and businesses on the ergonomics issue. Democrats argued that mandatory guidelines are needed to ensure that companies will take steps to protect workers from repetitive-stress injuries. Republicans contended that the bill would place a burden on small businesses and would have a negative impact on the economy.

“Ergonomics injuries account for approximately one-third of all workplace injuries,” stated Committee Chair Edward Kennedy (D-MA). “Women suffer the most from these debilitating injuries,” he noted, and added, “Women represent less than half the workforce but suffer two-thirds of all workplace injuries from carpal-tunnel syndrome.”

“This is a one-size-fits-all approach that will burden small businesses,” argued Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH). “This is the old Clinton rule, super sized,” he added, referring to the issuance of workplace regulations by the Clinton Administration in November 2000 that would have required employers to adjust work environments to reduce the risk of injury to employees. Congress enacted legislation to rescind those regulations shortly after President Bush took office.

Sen. Gregg read a letter from DoL Secretary Elaine Chao in which she outlined her objections to S. 2184. In her letter, Secretary Chao called the committee bill “even broader than the rule overturned by Congress.” She stressed that it would be difficult “to craft a standard that would be applied to all industries,” and that the bill “would further delay any real action to address ergonomics standards as employers put their current ergonomic hazard abatement plans on hold while awaiting a new federal standard.”

“You just read a letter that was sent to me,” quipped Sen. Kennedy.

“This legislation is the equivalent of trying to prove the world is flat,” said Sen. Christopher Bond (R-MO). “A vote for this bill is a vote against the viability of small businesses and a tremendous step backwards,” he added.

“This rule will save people the pain and suffering that could be avoided and it disproportionately affects women,” argued Sen. Kennedy.

“Let the DoL approach work,” implored Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). “The answer is not to reinstate the Clinton regulations that his own Small Business Administration estimated would cost more than $67 billion and jeopardize jobs,” she said.

“It’s good for companies to voluntarily comply and many do, and I salute them,” said Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN). “The problem is that you make it mandatory because those who don’t care, don’t comply,” he added.

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