An Ergonomic War

OSHA and the GOP clash over a new rule

Republicans are on the warpath, and the target is familiar. The GOP is mounting an effort to prevent OSHA from issuing a final rule dictating what companies must do to protect their workers from repetitive motion injuries. This ergonomics rule, due out this fall after extensive nationwide hearings and about eight years of planning, has become a rallying point for business groups concerned that it would unnecessarily increase their operating costs.

OSHA issued a proposed rule in November 1999 saying that a company, no matter what its size, would have to institute a major six-point ergonomics program once a single worker reports a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) that was suffered on the job and meets OSHA's criteria. (See March's "Capitol Issues" for more of the proposal's specifics.) The agency included a number of concessions for small businesses, including a "quick fix" alternative that would allow a company to bypass the six-point program by correcting a hazard within 90 days and checking within 30 days to see that the fix works. But as small-business groups began to pour through the 300-page Federal Register notice, their resistance rose.

By the time the House Small Business Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform and Paperwork Reduction held hearings on April 13, 2000, opposition was at full throttle. Edward Saxon, president and CEO of Conco Systems Inc., an 80-employee manufacturer in Verona, Pennsylvania, represented National Small Business United at those hearings. He contended the quick fix was not "an appropriate solution," pointing out a number of shortcomings. "Thirty days is not enough time to determine whether or not the efforts of the employer have eliminated the alleged hazard," he said. "If not, then owners have another three years of 'probation' where their business must keep a clean record."

With OSHA Administrator Charles Jeffress pledging to publish a final rule in fall 2000, the GOP felt compelled to act. The opportunity arose when the House considered the Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS) appropriations bill for fiscal year 2001, which begins October 1, 2000, and includes OSHA funds. By a narrow 220-to-203 vote on June 6, the House defeated an amendment to remove from the proposal an amendment sponsored by Rep. Anne Northup (R-KY) that said OSHA could spend no money on any ergonomics efforts in fiscal 2001.

President Clinton has promised to veto the entire Labor, HHS appropriations bill if the ergonomics amendment is included in the final version approved by the Senate and the House. And the House majority voting for the Northup amendment would not be enough to override the president's veto. So some compromise may be in the works.

A compromise seems possible because anti-ergonomics sentiment has spread beyond the business groups to which it had previously been confined. Some Democratic constituency groups supported the Northup amendment in the House. The National League of Cities, for example, supported Northup because it believes an OSHA ergonomics rule would be "a very significant unfunded mandate," according to the league's Randy Arndt.

Congress had previously passed a "no spending on ergonomics" amendment a few years back. Then, at the end of 1998, Congress authorized a study by the National Academy of Sciences which could be used by OSHA in sculpting any final rule. That study is due in early 2001. Congress did not say explicitly that OSHA had to wait for the study to be completed before issuing a final rule, but that was the implication.

OSHA's position has been that it's unnecessary to wait for the NAS study to be completed. Charles Jeffress says an ergonomics standard would save U.S. businesses $9.1 billion a year via reduced costs for employee medical expenses and worker's compensation. But the Northup amendment would force OSHA to wait.

Most small-business groups think the NAS study will help OSHA produce a more technically balanced rule. Says Randel Johnson, U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president for labor and employee benefits, "It is time for Congress to step in and tell OSHA to slow down and put science before politics."

Stephen Barlas is a freelance business reporter who covers the Washington beat for 15 magazines.

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This article was originally published in the September 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: An Ergonomic War.

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