- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 6, 2002

Labor Department officials said yesterday they plan to use voluntary guidelines and targeted enforcement of rules to improve job safety rather than impose new regulations on employers.
The new "comprehensive plan" favors business owners but is intended to respond to Democrats' demands for better job safety and health.
Last year, the Bush administration and Republicans blocked a proposal for tough ergonomics standards that business groups said would be prohibitively expensive.
"This plan is a major improvement over the rejected old rule because it will prevent ergonomics injuries before they occur and reach a much larger number of at-risk workers," Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao said in a prepared statement.
Mrs. Chao has been criticized by Democrats for not quickly developing a plan for reducing repetitive-stress injuries among workers. The regulations Congress rejected last year would have placed strict limits on repetitive movements and heavy lifting and would have required employers to liberally compensate workers while they recover from injuries.
Under one part of the plan announced yesterday, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will develop "industry and task-specific" guidelines to reduce ergonomic injuries.
The enforcement part of the plan calls for a crackdown on "bad actors," or employers in high-risk industries whose disregard for job safety would make them easy to prosecute. A special emphasis will be directed at protecting Hispanic or immigrant workers with weak English skills, who could be easy for employers to exploit.
Under the "compliance assistance" part of the plan, OSHA will provide employers with safety training and information about how to avoid job hazards.
OSHA also announced a national advisory committee that is supposed to keep the agency updated on the latest research into musculoskeletal disorders.
"Thousands of employers are already working to reduce ergonomics risks without government mandates," said John Henshaw, OSHA administrator. "We will go after the bad actors who refuse to take care of their workers."
OSHA plans to invoke the "general-duty" clause of its job-safety regulations to a greater degree in prosecuting some employers. The general-duty clause is a broad-based regulation that says employers have a duty to keep job sites free from hazards and to protect workers.
The National Coalition on Ergonomics, a Washington-based pro-business organization, liked the voluntary compliance component of the Labor Department plan.
"Allowing for cooperation and flexibility and focusing on results instead of just punishment will encourage companies to continue their innovative and effective workplace safety efforts," said Robb MacKie, the coalition's chairman.
He expressed concern that the vagueness of the general-duty clause could be abused by OSHA enforcers.
The Clinton-era regulations that Congress repealed more than a year ago pitted business groups against labor unions. After the repeal, Mrs. Chao promised a "comprehensive plan" by her agency to reduce job injuries. Democrats and labor unions have pushed for new regulations and oppose any voluntary approach, saying it would be ineffective.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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