- The Washington Times - Friday, April 19, 2002


Nursing homes will be the first industry targeted by the Labor Department as it develops voluntary guidelines to help reduce workplace injuries involving strain and repetitive motion, Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao told Congress yesterday.

"These workers play a vital role in caring for the needs of the elderly and infirm," Mrs. Chao testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. "But in the course of caring for others, they are frequently exposed to significant risks to their own health and safety."

The guidelines aren't in place yet, but will be developed by year's end with help from the industry and its workers, Mrs. Chao said.

She came under tough questioning by Democrats who oppose the voluntary approach. In an election year when control of Congress is at stake, Democrats pressed by labor unions want to take action to reduce injuries caused by repetitive motion and strain, which account for about a third of the 1.7 million injuries in the workplace.

"The administration's plan is a replay of failed strategies from the past," said Committee Chairman Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat. "They rely on toothless voluntary guidelines that most corporations will simply ignore."

Congress, controlled by Republicans last year, repealed sweeping Clinton-era regulations that could have required businesses to make changes to work stations. Two weeks ago, the Labor Department announced it would not create another government regulation and would instead pursue voluntary guidelines aimed at certain industries and tasks, combined with increased enforcement and education.

But a new bill introduced Wednesday by Sens. John B. Breaux, Louisiana Democrat, and Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, would require the Labor Department to issue a mandatory regulation within two years. So far, Mr. Specter is the only Republican who has signed on to support the bill. Of the handful of Democrats who voted to repeal the Clinton rules last year, only Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina has not given his support.

Mrs. Chao said a mandatory regulation for all businesses would take at least four years to implement, and would be challenged in court.

The agency's voluntary approach will help workers now, especially by focusing on preventing injuries before they occur, she said.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, pointed to the meatpacking industry, which saw a 47 percent drop in days missed from work because of injuries and a 61 percent reduction in strains and sprains from 1992 to 1999 because of voluntary guidelines.

But Sarah Richardson, 49, a New Jersey nursing home worker, said asking companies to cooperate to reduce injuries will not work.

"I think it should be a law that we have the proper equipment to work with," said Miss Richardson, who will undergo surgery to repair her shoulder, which was injured when she and another worker transferred a patient to a wheelchair.

Several Democrats questioned whether the Labor Department has enough resources to adequately monitor and enforce job safety, let alone increase those efforts.

Mrs. Chao said the budget request for next year would add 17 full-time positions for enforcement and compliance assistance. The agency also will take legal action against companies that refuse to make changes to reduce injuries.

Democrats pointed out that two such cases took the Labor Department more than 10 years to resolve.

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