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Published: Thursday, 3/22/2001

A slap at workers

The Bush administration and the Republican majority in Congress paid part of their dues to big business and manufacturing with the repeal of rules to reduce ergonomic injuries in the workplace.

But they have increased their debt to American workers, and especially American women, who though they are but 46 percent of the work force now account for 64 percent of repetitive motion injuries.

While many an office worker has developed carpal tunnel tendonitis from too much time in front of a computer, the bulk of those affected by injuring repetitive motion are blue collar. They work automobile lines, chop up chicken for packaging, butcher hogs, build furniture, peel shrimp, and lift heavy packs of food while stocking grocers' shelves.

These are people who have underwritten the decade of economic progress the rest of us have enjoyed by meeting higher and higher production speeds over long hours.

Some 1.8 million work-related muscle and skeletal disorders occurred last year, a third of them resulting in lost work days, the U.S. Department of Labor estimates. The numbers are likely higher. Academic studies have uncovered much underreporting, which leads the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to think that the real count may be as high as 3.6 million.

Many who didn't report injuries spoke little English and feared losing their jobs or being considered troublemakers if they fretted. And how would they live if they didn't work?

The new rules, signed by President Clinton four months ago, were the first federal standard ever for on-the-job ergonomics and came after 10 years of investigation. Regrettably six Democratic senators, five from the South, turned tail on workers in their states to vote with the Republicans. That has to worry Democratic leadership for the showdowns to come.

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, a good ol' girl among the good ol' boys, said she might try to come up with new rules that leave business happier, in the hopes of salving the wounds this political payoff caused. But worker safety isn't about putting happy faces on bosses. It's about sparing workers the depredations of people who see them as expendable.

The congressional action suggests that George W. Bush's lip service to bipartisanship was just that, that the GOP doesn't worry much about its gender gap, and doesn't put a priority on American workers, the girders on which the nation rests.

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