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Subcommittee Holds Second Hearing on Ergonomics

On April 26, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education held a hearing to discuss workplace safety and the recently rescinded ergonomics regulation. Subcommittee Chair Arlen Specter (R-PA) heard conflicting testimony about the science of ergonomics. “The testimony is diametrically opposed. I will reserve judgment because there is no consensus here. We will wrestle with these issues.”

The hearing follows congressional disapproval of recent ergonomics regulations. S. J. Res. 6, which rescinded the regulations, was signed by President Bush on March 13. The resolution was 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. Under the CRA, federal regulations can be rescinded if a disapproval resolution is approved by both chambers and signed by the President. The Senate passed the resolution, 56-44, on March 6, and the House followed with a 223-206 vote on March 7.

The final ergonomics rules, which were issued by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) on January 14, were scheduled to take effect on October 14. The new regulations would have required employers to adjust work environments to reduce the risk of injury to employees. Employers would have been required to provide information to 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 regulations also would have required 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. At the hearing, Peg Seminario of the AFL-CIO told the panel that, “Work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are among the most severe injuries facing American workers.” She added that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “women workers suffer a disproportionate number of injuries. In 1999, women suffered 67 percent of reported carpal tunnel syndrome cases (18,651) and 61 percent of reported tendinitis cases (10,127) even though women comprise about 46 percent of the workforce and accounted for 33 percent of total workplace injuries.”

However, most business groups and entrepreneurs oppose the rules because they would be potentially costly. Baruch A. Fellner of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP testified that “The prior Administration estimated annual costs of more than $4.5 billion, making ergonomics the second most expensive regulation since the Office of Management and Budget began its systematic review of regulatory impact.”

In addition, medical experts disagree about the scientific evidence that links ergonomics and the prevention of work-related injuries. Dr. Stanley J. Bigos of the University of Washington School of Medicine told the subcommittee, “Based on my extensive experience in this area, I believe that there is no scientific basis for mandatory ergonomic interventions in the workplace.” “On the contrary,” he continued, “the best science regarding musculoskeletal disorders suggests that the ergonomic proposals we have seen in the past would actually be detrimental to the health of American workers.”

Dr. Bradley Evanoff of the Washington University School of Medicine disagreed. “Based on my knowledge of the relevant scientific literature, my observations of best practices among employers and physician groups, and my own clinical and administrative experiences, I conclude that there is ample evidence to support specific program elements proposed by OSHA.” He told the panel, “Physical exposures in the workplace are clearly a significant cause of musculoskeletal disorders,” adding that “reduction in physical exposures through training, workplace design, or change in practices can reduce disability due to musculoskeletal disorders.”

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