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Published: Wednesday, 3/21/2001

Safety rules for workers repealed

BY RACHEL SMOLKIN
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU

WASHINGTON - In a swift victory for many U.S. businesses, President Bush yesterday signed a repeal of ergonomic workplace safety rules issued late in the Clinton administration.

Unions and public-health advocates said the overturned rules would have reduced painful and debilitating repetitive motion injuries for millions of American workers. Business groups said the rules were needlessly costly and burdensome.

The White House said the rules would have offered “uncertain benefits'' and “cost both large and small employers billions of dollars and presented employers with overwhelming compliance challenges.'' Mr. Bush did not hold a public ceremony for the signing.

The repeal throws the workplace safety movement into disarray. Mr. Bush said his administration will revisit the issue, but the repeal casts doubt on the Department of Labor's latitude in issuing revised rules. Experts on both sides of the debate acknowledge a potential for common ground, but few predict rapid compromise.

“We really don't know what room there is because right now everybody is so angry and so mad at what has happened,'' said Mohammad Akhter, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “The labor unions and the medical community are up in arms and somewhat shocked at the speed and the way in which things were done.''

Republican congressional leaders used a previously untested legislative procedure to repeal the regulations, which had been set in motion a decade ago when Republican Elizabeth Dole was Labor secretary. The Congressional Review Act gives Congress 60 days to kill final regulations and precludes federal agencies from reissuing substantially similar rules.

“The question becomes: What could they issue?'' said Peg Seminario, director of occupational safety and health for the AFL-CIO. “The statute has never been used, so there's no history and no legislative intent.''

The so-called ergonomics rules mandated readjusting the workplace to the worker to reduce an estimated 1.8 million repetitive motion injuries suffered every year. Carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, back pain, and other problems can result from keyboard work on computers, heavy lifting in assembly lines, and awkward bending in warehouses.

The rules would have required businesses to analyze jobs causing workers discomfort and take such actions as modifying a computer work station or adjusting the height and speed of an assembly line.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration estimated that the regulations, covering 102 million workers and 6 million businesses, would have prevented nearly 500,000 injuries a year at a cost of $4.5 billion.

Business lobbyists countered that costs would exceed $100 billion and the rules would undermine state workers' compensation laws. White House aides said Mr. Bush worried that the rules would hurt small businesses strained by the economic slowdown.

“We've told OSHA for 10 years that the path they were on is far too broad, far too costly, and far too burdensome,'' said Rep. John Boehner (R., Ohio), who helped lead the fight to kill the regulations.

But the issue seems unlikely to disappear.

A federal lawsuit against the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway in Texas has sparked public interest because the railroad conducted genetic testing on two dozen employees, but the core issue revolves around workers' claims that their carpal tunnel injuries are work-related.

Advocates hope publicity about repetitive motion injuries will intensify public pressure for Congress or the administration to act.

“We're not putting the files away,'' said Peter Eide, director of labor law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “It's something that we as a society can deal with and ought to deal with in a manner other than what we just saw go down in flames.''

In a letter to Mr. Boehner, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said she intends to pursue a comprehensive approach to ergonomics “that addresses the concerns levied against the current standard. This approach will provide employers with achievable measures that protect their employees before injuries occur.''

The Labor Department could issue voluntary guidelines, as it did for the meat-packing industry in 1990. The guidelines advised employers to analyze problems by studying injury records and take corrective action. The industry increased its use of machines to tear meat from bones, easing some of the strenuous tasks that disabled many workers.

David Cochran, a University of Nebraska industrial engineer who helped OSHA draft the repealed regulations, said other industries have relied on the meat-packing guidelines for advice in establishing ergonomics programs.

Mr. Cochran said OSHA could aid employers by issuing general industry guidelines, but that he believes the agency should pursue another rule. He said nearly all Fortune 500 companies have some type of ergonomics program in place, but many smaller employers do not understand the problem.

“When you have a regulation and everyone is required to follow it, it levels the playing field,'' Mr. Cochran said. “You and your competitor both have the same requirements on safety and health. You can't cut corners.''



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