- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 14, 2000

The Clinton administration issued new rules yesterday intended to protect 102 million U.S. workers from repetitive stress injuries on the job.
The new Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations would tighten ergonomic standards for one-third of all American businesses and would affect employees from dockworkers to secretaries.
Major business groups, which have fought the standards since OSHA proposed them last year, immediately filed legal challenges to stop them from being implemented. They say the new standards could drive some of them out of business.
Congress also has fought the ergonomic standards for the past year, with both houses passing legislation to prevent the standards from being implemented.
The National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, joined by other industry groups, filed petitions for review in the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia.
The OSHA rules "are unconstitutionally vague and there's no underlying science to support these standards," said Steve Bokat, general counsel for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
OSHA predicted that 460,000 fewer workers would suffer job injuries each year, saving employers $9.1 billion. The agency estimated businesses would spend $4.2 billion a year implementing the rules. Fixing an individual work station would average $250 a year.
OSHA's cost estimates were disputed by industry leaders, who said employers would need to spend an additional $100 billion a year to comply.
At work sites where employees report job injuries to their supervisors, employers will be required to audit the injured worker's job for safety hazards. If the worker's job duties exceed the OSHA standards, the employer would be required to eliminate the hazard.
Risk factors listed under the new rules include making workers type consistently on keyboards for more than four hours per day, requiring workers to lift heavy objects weighing more than 75 pounds more than once per day and lifting objects weighing more than 55 pounds more than 10 times per day.
"There's no valid science that says how many repetitions are too many repetitions and how much weight is too much weight," Mr. Bokat said. "Because of that, there's no way they can tell you how to fix your workplace to prevent a hazard."
But Labor Department officials disputed that charge.
"Our final standard establishes concrete objective guidance for employers to help them determine when they need to take further action and when they've fulfilled their obligation to resolve problems in their workplace," Charles Jeffress, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, said in announcing the standards. Mr. Jeffress oversees OSHA for the Labor Department.
The rules would take effect in January, although businesses would have until October to comply with them.
Tim Hammonds, president of the Food Marketing Institute, which joined the Chamber in trying to stop the measures, predicted the rules would create an "avalanche of new procedures and paperwork instead of improving safety in the workplace."
Mike Baroody, the National Association of Manufacturers' senior vice president, accused the Clinton administration of lame-duck politics to fulfill a promise to labor unions.
The AFL-CIO labor federation had pushed for more stringent job-safety rules.
"Rightly understood, this is not a health and safety rule, it's a political payoff," Mr. Baroody said.
However, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said, "For years, big business groups and anti-worker members of Congress have waged a relentless campaign to block the ergonomics standards."
OSHA began exploring the idea of new ergonomic rules 10 years ago. The standards have been tied up ever since in political wrangling and disputes about scientific evidence.
Under the new rules, the only duty for many workplaces with low-risk jobs would be to give workers information about repetitive stress injuries and their symptoms, OSHA officials said. Employers would need to take action only if injuries occur that fall under OSHA's risk categories.
If, for example, workers reported symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain or tendinitis, employers would have to determine whether the symptoms were job-related. Workers with job injuries would get medical care and time off with pay while they recover.
The rules bothered some Republican lawmakers enough that they stalled negotiations with the White House over the Labor Department's budget. The White House insisted that OSHA be allowed to issue the rules this year but agreed to delay implementing them until June. The next president would have the option of rescinding them.
Republican leaders doubted the next president would be able to rescind the rules because of political opposition. As a result, they stalled final agreement on the $350 billion Labor-Health-Education spending bill, which still must be enacted by Congress for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
"The ergonomics standard is yet another example of OSHA's aggressive regulatory approach, which emphasizes enforcement over cooperation and creates a one-size-fits-all answer to a complex issue with no clear scientific solution," said a statement by Rep. Bill Goodling, chairman of the House Education and Workforce Committee and a Pennsylvania Republican, and Rep. Cass Ballenger, North Carolina Republican and chairman of the committee's workforce protections subcommittee.

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