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Senate Committee Revisits Ergonomics Issue

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee held an April 18 hearing to examine repetitive-stress injuries, such as carpel-tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, and lower-back pain, in the workplace.

Ergonomics has been a long-running, contentious issue causing intense disputes between labor groups and businesses. The Clinton Administration issued workplace regulations in November 2000 to address workplace repetitive-stress injuries that would have required employers to adjust work environments to reduce the risk of injury to employees. The rules also would have required businesses with more than 11 employees to keep records on workers’ injuries and treatments for three years. However, those regulations were rescinded when President Bush took office.

This year, on April 5, the President announced a new policy to address workplace injuries. The plan would not require businesses to redesign or adjust the workplace environment to address workers’ ergonomic needs. Instead, the plan calls for voluntary industry guidelines to prevent workplace injuries.

Additionally, on April 17, Senators John Breaux (D-LA) and Arlen Specter (R-PA) introduced legislation (S. 2184) that would require the Department of Labor (DOL) to develop mandatory workplace regulations.

Committee Chair Edward Kennedy (D-MA) criticized the President’s plan, saying that “the administration’s goal is to look the other way and help big business get away with it.” He emphasized that most of the victims will be women because they are in jobs that cause repetitive-stress injuries.

On the other hand, Sen. Christopher Bond (R-MO) praised the plan, saying that it was a vast improvement over the Clinton Administration’s approach, which he called “a monument to regulatory excess.”

At the hearing, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao defended the President’s ergonomics plan and described the four-prong approach that DOL has set up to address Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs) in the workplace.

“First,” she said, “the approach calls for the development of industry-specific MSD prevention guidelines, with the first set to be completed this year.” Continuing to outline the DOL program, she said the second step would be to create “a new enforcement strategy to pursue bad actors who refuse to take the necessary steps to protect their employees.”

Third, the DOL would establish an outreach program to increase awareness of ergonomics issues, and fourth, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would “serve as a catalyst to encourage researchers to design studies in areas where additional information would be helpful.”

She testified that her Department’s “multi-pronged approach” builds on existing guidelines that have been effective in reducing injury rates. The new plan, she added, is the result of information gathered over the past year at three forums conducted by the DOL.

Jacqueline Nowell of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union commented on the elements of the DOL program. “First, where’s the beef?” she asked. “Workers have waited over one year and the announced plan is less than 3 pages long and contains no specifics,” she complained.

Responding to the proposal to develop voluntary guidelines, she said it is her belief “that all the companies that were going to voluntarily implement ergonomics programs and address MSD injuries have done so already.” She called this proposal a “weak and non-protective approach with little incentive for companies to do the right thing.

“The bottom line is that MSDs are a major national safety and health problem that need a meaningful solution,” she said, and added that DOL’s proposal “is doomed to failure and will not bring about a significant solution.”

Paul Fontana of the Fontana Center for Work Rehabilitation, Inc. disagreed. “I am pleased by what I see,” he said, adding that in his opinion “the new proposal offers a flexible, cost effective plan” that will be easy to implement. He stressed to the committee that the proposal will allow him to address the needs of his employees while at the same time enabling him to operate his small business.

As a small business owner with 40 full-time employees, “the bottom line for me is that I have to ensure that my employees are able to work continually at the job in a safe and efficient manner while at the same time I am not overburdened with the process of complying with a regulation,” he said. “I believe the new voluntary guidelines allow me to do this,” he added.

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