- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2001

The Senate yesterday passed a resolution to overturn new work-place ergonomic rules that took effect four days before President Clinton left office.

The 56-44 vote, which mostly followed party lines, sends the measure to the House, where the leaders of the Republican majority say they can pass another "resolution of disapproval" as early as today.

President Bush would have to sign the resolution, and his administration yesterday put its weight behind repealing the regulations issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

"These regulations would cost employers, large and small, billions of dollars annually while providing uncertain new benefits," the White House said in a declaration of support, issued yesterday afternoon as the Senate debate unfolded.

The senators voted to overturn the OSHA rules using the Congressional Review Act. The 1996 act, which has never been used, would kill the regulations and prevent similar standards from being issued without congressional approval.

The regulations, which could affect 102 million American workers, are intended to reduce repetitive stress injuries. Implementing them would cost between $20 billion and $120 billion, businesses say.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, called the bill "special-interest legislation" for Republican campaign contributors.

That prompted a sharp retort from Republican Whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who said, "The only thing that was special interest was the Clinton administration trying to jam this thing through in the last four days" of its term.

All 50 Republican senators voted to overturn the regulations, as did six Democrats: John B. Breaux and Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Max Baucus of Montana, Zell Miller of Georgia, Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said yesterday that she will pursue a new "comprehensive approach" to dealing with repetitive-motion injuries if the rules are repealed.

Even senators who complained about the high cost of complying with the OSHA rules warned yesterday about the dangerous precedent of Congress intruding into the rule-making authority of the executive branch.

"The executive rule-making process must be treated with respect," said Sen. Tim Hutchinson, Arkansas Republican, who opposed the OSHA ergonomics rules. Ergonomics refers to the science of fitting jobs to workers.

Nevertheless, Senate opponents of the OSHA rules said the burden to business and the economy justified congressional action.

"OSHA has grossly underestimated the cost effect of its proposal," Mr. Hutchinson said. "My great concern is for the small businesses of this country."

OSHA estimates the cost of compliance to employers nationwide at $4.5 billion. The agency says employers will save $9 billion a year in lower medical insurance premiums and greater productivity. Fixing a work station would cost an average $250 a year.

The impending vote sparked an outcry from labor unions, who favor the rules, and business groups, who oppose them.

Unions protested outside a National Association of Manufacturers meeting last week.

John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, denounced the Senate action last night.

" 'Dishonest' and 'disgraceful' are not strong enough words to describe the Senate vote against injured workers in Congress tonight," he said in a statement. "The vote raises the stakes for action in the House."

Unions also have been distributing information at work sites, showcasing workers with injuries, bombarding lawmakers with e-mails and phone calls, and targeting freshman lawmakers and several Democratic senators who voted against the rules last year.

The Clinton administration issued the 600-plus pages of rules in November after a decade-long OSHA struggle to regulate repetitive-motion injuries.

The rules give businesses until October to comply with the first regulation by distributing information to employees and beginning the process of receiving and responding to injury reports.

Another provision requires employers to pay workers with musculoskeletal injuries from repetitive stress 90 percent of their normal wages for the first 90 days they are out of work recuperating.

Mr. Hutchinson said the costs would cut deeply into small businesses' revenue and make some employers export jobs to countries that lack adequate job-safety rules.

He also questioned a procedure in the rules that requires employers to determine the cause of injuries and take corrective action.

"How is the employer to determine what is in fact the cause of that disorder?" he asked.

He used the example of keyboard workers who might use the Internet for two to three hours a day in their free time off work. If the workers develop repetitive stress injuries in their hands or wrists, employers would have no way of knowing whether their jobs or their free-time activities caused the injuries, he said.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, Connecticut Democrat, suggested that Congress give OSHA more time to resolve lawmakers' questions rather than overturning the rules by legislative action.

"I don't know if there was ever a time since this nation first decided it was in the national interest to provide protection for people that we have rolled back the standards in 10 hours of debate," he said.

The Republicans, however, did not want to wait.

"This regulation is the poster child of bad regulation," said Sen. Christopher S. Bond, Missouri Republican. He added that the ergonomics rule was a good first case for the Congressional Review Act to overturn a bad agency rule.

He also questioned whether the OSHA's research was reliable enough to prove the rules could reduce injuries. "I'm not sure the science is there," Mr. Bond said.

One of the Democrats who supported the OSHA ergonomics rules was Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the New York Democrat whose husband approved them.

"We should not bow to pressure from industry groups and wipe this worker safety standard off the face of the Earth," she said at a news conference yesterday.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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