Ergonomics Encore

Just one week after President George W. Bush signed legislation to revoke a controversial ergonomics rule, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Washington, D.C., released a report that underscores the gravity of repetitive stress injury problems in the American workplace. The report, which comes in the wake of a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study with similar results, ran counter to arguments that ergonomics regulations are unnecessary. Accounting for nearly one-third of all job-related injuries, musculoskeletal disorders (triggered by repetitive actions, force and awkward postures) cost the country between $45 billion and $54 billion annually, the reports reveal.

Emboldened by these statistics, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators, led by Louisiana Democrat John Breaux, has introduced legislation designed to replace the now-defunct ergonomics rule within two years.

Solid waste industry representatives — who opposed the initial ergonomics rule, on grounds that waste industry managers do not sufficiently control the work environment to address ergonomic risks — are withholding judgment on the proposed new rule.

“It would be premature to speculate on the [Environmental Industry Associations' (EIA)] position on future ergonomics rules until we have had an opportunity to evaluate them,” says David Biderman, general counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based association.

However, AFL-CIO representative Bill Kojola predicts that U.S. employers will oppose any new ergonomics legislation. “This is an anti-regulatory environment we're living in,” he says. “Employers are not interested in having the government issue rules on anything affecting the conduct of their business.”

But Senator Breaux and the bill's co-sponsors are betting that employers and legislators will accept a new approach to ergonomics legislation.

Like many of his colleagues, Breaux opposed the initial rule, calling it “confusing” and charging the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Washington, D.C., with overstepping its rule-making bounds. In a Mar. 6 statement on the Senate floor, Breaux said that the initial rule unlawfully extended state workers' compensation laws.

“I am suggesting we do something that makes sense,” Breaux told his peers. And, two weeks later, he introduced S. 598 “to provide for the reissuance of a rule relating to ergonomics,” the bill says.

Citing the NAS study, the bill establishes a need for ergonomics legislation “to address a serious workplace safety and health problem,” and requires OSHA to issue a new rule within two years of the bill's enactment.

Additionally, the bill would prohibit any new rule from expanding existing state workers' compensation laws, and would not apply to “non-work-related musculoskeletal disorders that occur outside the workplace or non-work-related musculoskeletal disorders that are aggravated by work.”

Kojola and other labor advocates are skeptical of the bill, which they say tries to fix what's not broken. OSHA's initial rule was clear and explicit, Kojola says, noting, “There is a lot of solid evidence that if employers developed an ergonomics program similar to what OSHA initially outlined, they would save money over the costs that they currently bear.”

Congress revoked OSHA's initial rule using the Congressional Review Act, which forbids any new rule that is “substantially similar” to the rejected rule. Labor advocates say this does not bode well for the development of meaningful ergonomics regulations in the future.

But while political pundits say the new bill has little chance of passing, Senator Breaux has built a diverse and powerful foundation of support. His co-sponsors include Arlen Specter, R-Pa.; Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.; Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.; Mary Landrieu, D-La.; Ben Nelson, D-Neb.; Max Cleland, D-Ga.; and Zell Miller, D-Ga.

With a respected NAS study and the words of President Bush's own Labor Secretary on his side, Breaux may have new reasons to hope for success.

“This finding demonstrates the need for a solid, comprehensive approach to ergonomics,” Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said in response to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' report. “It also points to a need to address injuries, before they occur, through prevention and compliance assistance, rather than just relying on reactionary methods.”

Additionally, Senator Specter, who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations committee that funds labor, has announced he will ask Chao about her ergonomics plans during a hearing next month.