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Senate Subcommittee Examines Ergonomics Hazard

On July 17, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Subcommittee on Employment, Safety, and Training held a hearing to examine how workers can be protected from ergonomic hazards.

This is the second Senate hearing on ergonomics standards since congressional disapproval of ergonomics regulations (See The Source, 4/27/01, p. 3). S. J. Res. 6, which rescinded the regulations, was signed into law by the President on March 13.

Opening the hearing, Subcommittee Chair Paul Wellstone (D-MN) stated, “I believe it is fair to say without exaggeration that today’s topic, protecting workers from the risk of repetitive stress injuries, is the most critical workplace safety issue of our time.” He added, “I think the record of hazards and injuries will speak clearly today, just as it has spoken clearly for a number of years, to the need for a sound ergonomics standard.”

Both Sens. Wellstone and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) expressed disappointment that Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao “chose not to join us today.” Sen. Wellstone added, “The Secretary has said she is committed to developing a ‘comprehensive approach’ to dealing with repetitive stress injuries. But nothing this administration has done so far is consistent with such sympathetic-sounding language.”

Chris Spear of the Labor Department told the subcommittee, “I assure you that the Secretary is very serious about addressing the ergonomics issues before us today.” He added, “She is committed to designing an approach that prevents injuries before they occur rather than reacting after a worker has suffered an injury.”

Mr. Spear explained that the department is holding a series of public forums to hear comments from the business community, organized labor, medical societies, and state and local governments on ergonomics. “We hope that taking a fresh, independent look at the issue, combined with what we will learn during the forum process, will lead to a comprehensive plan for addressing ergonomics injuries that employers, their employees, and Congress can all support,” he said.

Representing the scientific community, Dr. Jeremiah Barondess of the New York Academy of Medicine testified that workplace activities “have been shown to be responsible for musculoskeletal disorders of the low back and upper extremities.” He told the subcommittee that back pain and other disorders related to workplace activities result in “one million people losing time from work each year” at a cost of “about $50 billion annually.” He noted that “among women, the highest-risk occupations are nursing aides/orderlies/attendents, licensed practical nurses, maids, and janitors,” and added, “other high-risk occupations include hairdressers and automobile mechanics, often employed in small businesses or self-employed.”

Carmen Hacht of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union worked in a meat packing plant in Nebraska for 26 years. She described her job: “As a trimmer, I had a hook in one hand and a 10-inch knife in the other. I had to hook a big slab of meat, pull it toward me, then trim off the fat with the knife. I did that thousands of times a day. At night, I’d wake up in pain. My hands and arms up to my elbows would be numb. In the morning my hands were so swollen that I couldn’t make a fist.”

In 1988, Ms. Hacht became a worker ergonomics monitor, analyzing jobs for ergonomic hazards, testing equipment, listening to ergonomic concerns by workers about their jobs, and implementing ergonomic fixes. She emphasized that, “Ergonomic hazards don’t have to be a fact of the workplace,” and added, “Workers have known for years that job modifications can prevent strain injuries and we’ve been telling OSHA through our unions for 20 years.” She urged the subcommittee to restore the ergonomics standard.

However, Dr. Connie Verhagen of the American Dental Association (ADA) disagreed. She testified that the ADA was pleased that Congress “took the appropriate action” to repeal the final ergonomics standard. “OSHA now has the opportunity to go back to the drawing board and develop a new method for helping employers address potential worksite ergonomics hazards.” She said her association believes that “any approach should be devised with the understanding of industry-specific needs and an appreciation of the disproportionate burden placed on small businesses such as dentistry.”

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