By William Atkinson
Special to CONTRACTOR
WASHINGTON — Business and industry heaved a sigh of relief in March 2001 when Congress invoked the Congressional Review Act to rescind the ergonomics standard promulgated in late 2000 by the Clinton administration’s OSHA. At the time, Congress also prohibited OSHA from issuing any substantially similar rule in the future.
The Mechanical Contractors Association of America was one organization happy with the congressional action.
“The attempt at regulation was a big mistake,” said Pete Chaney, MCAA’s director of safety and health. “In industries where workers are engaged in the exact same motions eight hours a day, five days a week, it might make sense. However, we don’t have the experience or the sound science to justify an ergonomics standard for all industries.
“In many cases, the medical community can’t even tell if a reported injury has occurred. For example, with a claim of lower back pain, you often can’t even see any damage to the musculo-skeletal system.”
Congress’s action, however, didn’t mean that OSHA’s involvement in ergonomics is dead. In eliminating the formal standard, Congress asked new Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to pursue a fresh approach to ergonomics, which she announced April 5, bowing to strong pressure from Sen. Edward Kennedy, D -Mass., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
While the details of the plan will not be available until later in the year, the preliminary outline makes it clear that OSHA wants to address these five initiatives:
l Rely on voluntary guidelines rather than mandated standards proposed by OSHA during the Clinton administration;
l Emphasize enforcement efforts focused on employers and industries that have been prosecuted for ergonomics problems in the past, in addition to employers whose ergonomics practices violate OSHA’s “general duty clause,” which requires employers to maintain safe workplaces;
l Provide assistance to employers to help them comply with whatever guidelines OSHA devises;
l Create a special outreach program for immigrant workers, especially Hispanics; and
l Provide for further ergonomics research.
Proponents of the administration’s new plan include the Risk and Insurance Management Society, the Alliance of American Insurers, the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
The Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors - National Association is a supporter as well.
“We believe OSHA is headed in the right direction with this ergonomics plan,” said Lake Coulson, PHCC’s director of government relations. “We believe it is a comprehensive plan that can work.”
MCAA is also happy with the new approach, for the most part.
“We feel OSHA is very much headed in the right direction with its new approach, except for the idea of using the general duty clause for enforcement,” Chaney said.
He added that the enforcement aspect is a “big mistake.”
“A lot of OSHA’s field compliance officers are very level-headed, but some are not,” he said. “These are the ones who may want to use the general duty clause just to ‘stick the employer.’”
Opponents of OSHA’s new initiative include many labor groups, including the AFL-CIO.
Emphasizing his commitment to the spirit of the plan, OSHA Administrator John Henshaw recently pledged in a speech to step up enforcement and litigation efforts in order to reduce repetitive-stress injuries in the workforce. He also encouraged businesses to develop their own ergonomics programs.
In addition, OSHA just announced a program creating a regional ergonomics coordinator position for each of its 10 regional offices to assist OSHA staff, employers, employees and “other stakeholders” on ergonomics issues. (For names and phone numbers, go to: www.osha.gov/media/oshnews/apr02/trade(c)20020409.html.)
Appearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee April 18, Chao was asked about the possibility of creating a new ergonomics rule instead. She said such a rule would take at least 411/42 years, longer if it were subjected to litigation, which it undoubtedly would.
Despite that, Sens. John Breaux, D-La., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., have introduced legislation requiring the federal government to promulgate an ergonomics standard within two years. The bipartisan bill is co-sponsored by 22 other senators.
In the meantime, OSHA has stated that it will be working with industries to develop industry-specific ergonomics guidelines.
“We believe that our industry – not only plumbing-heating-cooling but the whole construction industry – should work to try to create some guidelines to address ergonomics,” Coulson said.