- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 17, 2001

Business groups warned yesterday that government workplace safety rules would hurt corporate profits and lead to layoffs, while labor groups said strong safety standards could cut health insurance costs and prevent crippling injuries.
The traditional rivals continued their decade-long fight over employee safety standards at the first of three hearings the Labor Department is holding this summer.
Congress in January voted down the standards proposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), saying they were too costly for employers, impractical to enforce and based on poor research.
Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao is supposed to decide in the fall whether to pursue new ergonomics rules or ask employers to participate in a voluntary program.
Doctors for opponents of government regulation testified at George Mason University yesterday that tough ergonomics rules could encourage workers to fake job injuries or linger on disability benefits when they could be working. Ergonomics refers to adjusting workplaces to accommodate workers and eliminate hazards.
"We should discourage disability," said Dr. Alf Nachemson, a Swedish back-pain expert. "We should limit or eliminate financial support for back pain."
He said some workers claim their back pain is a result of a repetitive stress injury on the job when often it is not job-related or results from dissatisfaction with work.
He also described a job safety program in Sweden similar to the earlier one proposed by OSHA that nearly bankrupted the Swedish economy.
However, Heidi Eberhardt, a former Internet company employee who worked on computer keyboards, described to the three-member OSHA panel the pain she endured doing routine tasks, such as squeezing a toothpaste tube, using nail clippers or turning a faucet handle.
She said her supervisor was unresponsive when she complained of pain from using her keyboard.
By the time she realized the extent of her injury two years ago, tendons and ligaments in her hands had incurred a possibly permanent repetitive-stress injury, she said.
William Zollars, chairman of Yellow Corp., suggested that OSHA encourage voluntary compliance by businesses. He discussed a voluntary safety program that cost his trucking company $12 million to redesign workplaces but resulted in a 15 percent drop in lost time from injuries.
Government regulation would succeed only if it is based on "sound science," which was lacking in OSHA's earlier proposed standards, he said.
Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO labor federation, blamed President Bush and business groups for causing "unnecessary injuries and illnesses" to American workers by failing to approve ergonomics standards.
"You're responsible for the pain, suffering and devastation to their lives," Mr. Trumka said.
Congress voted down OSHA's proposed standards in January. President Bush signed a Joint Resolution of Disapproval on March 20.
Mr. Trumka also said the three public forums on ergonomics standards were "totally stacked in industry's favor and designed to lead to no action."
The other hearings are scheduled for Friday in Chicago and July 24 in Palo Alto, Calif.
Mrs. Chao defended the Bush administration against the accusations.
"Witnesses were selected by career professionals, without political interference," she said.
Three Democratic senators whose committees oversee labor issues also raised concerns about the balance of witnesses in a letter to Mrs. Chao last week. The letter said "key constituencies," such as the American Physical Therapy Association and the American Public Health Association, were excluded, despite the fact they "are needed to help provide you the balanced forums on this issue that you purport to seek."
It was signed by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Tom Harkin of Iowa and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota.
During the hearing, three protesters interrupted, shouting, "Big business loves the ergonomics forum sham." They were removed by security guards.
"We can choose to do one of two things starting today," Mrs. Chao said. "We can play politics or we can protect workers. We can engage in sideshows or we can pursue safety."
She also warned that any failure of the Senate to confirm Labor Department nominees may delay drafting new ergonomic rules.
Bush administration nominees awaiting confirmation include John Henshaw, who is nominated to head OSHA; Emily DeRocco, nominee to head Labor Department employment training; and Eugene Scalia, nominee for Labor Department solicitor and son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
"Early on, I committed to moving expeditiously on ergonomics, and we have all lived up to that commitment," Mrs. Chao said. "But with crucial nominees yet to be confirmed, it is becoming a real challenge."

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