- The Washington Times - Monday, May 20, 2002

As he stood before the altar of New York's Trinity Church last month, only a few hundredyards from the gaping hole where the World Trade Center once stood, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney led a Memorial Day ceremony to "mourn those who were doing their jobs that day."
After Bible readings, Mr. Sweeney and hundreds of blue-collar workers marched out onto Broadway, led by bagpipers from an electricians union playing "Amazing Grace."
On a stage nearby, labor leaders sounded a familiar theme: About 6,000 workers killed on the job each year, another 50,000 who die from occupational illnesses and almost 6 million injured.
And by the way, Mr. Sweeney said at the site where 3,000 people died and the nation's grief and outrage are centered, the Bush administration should change its policies on ergonomics.
Ergonomics refers to strategies for protecting workers from job injuries, particularly repetitive-stress injuries.
The connection between ergonomics and the September 11 terrorist attacks might be strained, but it is easily evident that business owners object to having tough new job safety rules crammed down their throats.
So far, they have been successful in defeating a proposal in Congress that would have required employers to redesign workstations.
The Clinton-era regulations limited the number of times and frequency with which workers could repeat any specific motion. It also restricted the amount of weight they could lift. The rules would have affected keyboard typists, construction workers, medical personnel and much of the rest of the American workplace. Employers that failed to comply with the rules faced tough fines and heavy disability payments if workers were injured.
Congress voted down the bill on the theory that it would raise the cost of doing business so high that layoffs and corporate bankruptcies were inevitable. They also disputed whether the studies that demonstrated the need for the ergonomics rules were based on sound science.

A new approach
Last month, the Labor Department announced a revised ergonomics strategy that relies on "voluntary guidelines" to protect workers from repetitive-stress injuries.
"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," said Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao as she announced the "comprehensive plan" April 5.
The prevention Mrs. Chao mentioned depends largely on educating employers about workplace hazards and suggesting guidelines for them to follow. Injuries will be prevented when employers see the good reasoning behind the guidelines and decide to follow them, Labor Department officials believe.
Rather than ending the debate on ergonomics, it is feeding the fires of workers rights advocates' outrage.
Peter Susser, a partner for the Washington office of the employment law firm Littler, Mendelson, says his corporate clients were happy with the voluntary guidelines announced last month.
"For most employers, the approach is much preferable to overreaching federal standards," he says.
But he warns that the Labor Department might have handed unions "an organizing tool." Workers concerned about a lack of adequate safety rules probably will seek protection from unions, he says.
Unions say the voluntary guidelines are a whitewash, lacking the enforcement authority to make them effective and intended to protect the image of the Bush administration.
On April 17, two senators introduced a bill that would require the Labor Department to issue mandatory ergonomics regulations within two years. Mrs. Chao responded by saying mandatory regulations would take at least four years to write and implement. Court challenges would certainly follow, further delaying their implementation.
The Labor Department still plans to enforce job safety standards at the most hazardous industries. The department's funding request for the upcoming fiscal year includes positions for 17 new compliance officers.
Labor organizations were unconvinced, some even angered, by Mrs. Chao's assurances.
"Repetitive stress and strain injuries also known as ergonomic hazards injure and cripple more than 1.8 million workers each year," says Sonny Hall, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO. "The Bush administration's response to this health crisis has been appalling: voluntary, toothless guidelines that ignore the excruciating pain millions of Americans bring home from work every day."
He also says the Bush administration's budget proposal for next year offered no improvement in worker health and safety compliance programs.

Forcing the issue
"This thing's not going to go away," says Tony Biafore, president of Silver Spring-based Ergonetics LLC, a company that conducts ergonomics training for industry and government. "Whether there's legislation or not, organizations are going to be forced to look at this. One way or another they're going to end up paying. They're either going to pay for injuries or they're going to pay for equipment and training."
His perception that ergonomics is a long-term issue is shared by medical personnel in the Washington area.
"We have, unfortunately, a healthy business doing that kind of assessment," says James Rogers, spokesman for National Rehabilitation Hospital. Common repetitive-stress injuries diagnosed at the hospital include inflammations and strains to the neck, wrists and eyes.
"To do things in a way that is unnatural causes stress to the body," Mr. Rogers says. "A proper ergononetic setup can go a long way toward preventing problems down the road."
Congress enacted the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970 as a response to a growing job-related death and injury rate, as well as sometimes catastrophic financial consequences from lost productivity and health care.
The goal of the act, Congress wrote, was: "To assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women; by authorizing enforcement of the standards developed under the act; by assisting and encouraging the states in their efforts to assure safe and healthful working conditions; by providing for research, information, education and training in the field of occupational safety and health."
The act also set up the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to oversee job safety standards. OSHA investigates the causes of job accidents, sets standards that employers must follow for each industry and fines them for lapses in meeting the standards.
An example is construction cranes. OSHA's research found that about 125,000 cranes are being used in the construction industry, exposing a quarter million people to the risk of job injury from them. Each year, an average of 71 crane workers are killed.
Public awareness of crane dangers was raised by a 1989 tower crane collapse in downtown San Francisco that was caught on videotape. Two persons were killed. In another eye-catching incident, three persons were killed in a 1993 mobile crane accident in Las Vegas.
OSHA identified the most common causes of crane accidents and set standards to respond to each one. Nearly 45 percent of the crane accidents, for example, are caused by the boom of a crane striking energized overhead lines. As a result, OSHA requires minimum clearance distances for cranes working near power lines. The construction contractors also are supposed to notify public utilities that the power lines should be de-energized while a crane is operated nearby.
Fines for each of the most serious violations can reach $70,000 per offense.

Safer workplace
It would be difficult to dispute OSHA's success in the 31 years since it opened shop. Workplace fatalities have been cut in half. Occupational injuries and illnesses dropped 40 percent. At the same time, U.S. employment nearly doubled from 56 million workers at 3.5 million job sites to 105 million workers at nearly 6.9 million sites.
In recent years, repetitive-stress injuries have emerged as the hazard garnering the greatest attention from unions, OSHA and Congress.
Repetitive-stress injuries are caused by many repetitions of the same task. Although no single incident causes the injury, the unusual stress on tendons, muscles and bones cumulates to create painful, chronic and sometimes crippling injuries.
Until science uncovered the cause of the injuries, they often were brushed off as simple muscle strains. If the injury lingered, the victims were accused of faking it or of having suffered some other injury outside their job that was not the responsibility of the employer's health plan.
The most common example is carpal tunnel syndrome, an inflammation of the hand and wrist commonly found among data-entry clerks and assembly line workers who must tap at keyboards or twist and turn their wrists all day long.
Over time, the work causes fluid pressure to build up around nerves. The pressure compresses the nerves, causing damage to the median nerve in the wrist. Inflamed tendons can exert similar pressure on nerves.
No one, regardless of his physical condition, is immune from the hazard. Truck drivers whose tires are slightly misaligned can get carpal tunnel syndrome from vibrating steering wheels. Construction workers report similar problems from tying concrete reinforcing bars together. Even piano players can become disabled from too much reaching with their pinkies to hit the high notes.
Peggy Moskowitz, a Suburban Hospital surgical nurse, was jolted into the realities of repetitive stress a few months ago when she developed tennis elbow.
"I'm pretty athletic and I didn't think my joints would be a problem for me," Mrs. Moskowitz says.
She blamed the pulling and lifting she does on her job as a major factor.
"You're using your upper body a lot in transferring patients and moving equipment from room to room," she says. "You have to do a lot of odd motions."
Now, she uses an arm brace. "Using a brace is forcing me to not do the motions that inflame the tennis elbow," says Mrs. Moskowitz, a Gaithersburg resident.
OSHA responded to the growing evidence of repetitive-stress injuries first by doing a study and then spending 10 years developing ergonomics standards.
Among the rules, workers could not be required to type constantly for more than four hours per day, they could not be ordered to lift objects heavier than 75 pounds more than once per day or to lift objects heavier than 55 pounds more than 10 times per day.
Democrats, such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, vigorously defended the new ergonomics rules.
OSHA, under the Clinton administration, acknowledged the new standards would cost industry $4.5 billion to implement, but said they would save $9 billion in reduced costs and greater productivity. In addition, 460,000 fewer job injuries would occur each year.
ndustry groups estimated the rules would cost them as much as $100 billion a year, assuming companies were not driven out of business first.
They also said the incentive of reducing health care costs by themselves made new rules unnecessary.
"DuPont's been working on ergonomics as an issue in our work force for the better part of a decade," says Ellen Kullman, a vice president for safety and protection at Wilmington, Del.-based DuPont Co.
Between 1998 and 2001, DuPont says it decreased lost workday cases from musculoskeletal injuries by 30 percent.
When the mandatory rules Congress defeated in March were announced, the company did an internal study to determine the effect on its business.
"We did not see it would have a large impact on our program," Mrs. Kullman says.
She says the voluntary guidelines announced last month are much better than the tough enforcement envisioned in the earlier mandatory rules.
"It's whether you like a carrot or a stick," Mrs. Kullman says. "It comes down to that."
President Clinton was so impressed by the mandatory ergonomics rules that he gave OSHA approval of them by executive order in the final days of his administration. But one of the first acts of President Bush was to put the rules on hold, pending a vote in Congress.
All opinions about the rules came to a head in a March 7, 2001, debate and vote in Congress.
"This regulation was written at the AFL-CIO and jammed down our throat," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican.
Democrats, such as House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, accused "special interests" of opposing the ergonomics rules. Big business rallied against the new job safety rules "at the expense of working families," Mr. Gephardt said.
In the end, both the House and Senate repealed the rules, with the support of Mr. Bush.
Since then, unions and other workers rights groups have tried to pick up the pieces with lackluster efforts to have the ergonomics rules reinstated.
OSHA announced the first set of voluntary guidelines April 18. They are targeted at the nursing home industry, particularly back injuries among workers who must lift and move immobile elderly persons.
"With the nursing shortage and other issues confronting this industry, it makes sound business sense for the stakeholders involved to be the first to tackle ergonomic problems in their industry," says John Henshaw, head of OSHA.
OSHA plans to solicit public comments on the voluntary guidelines for nursing homes soon before they become final rules. Although the comments will be about nursing homes, the real issue is expected to be a struggle over ergonomics.


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