Multinational Monitor

MAY 2001
VOL 22 No. 5


Rollback: The Corporate Regulatory Feeding Frenzy
Foreward by
Monitor Staff

Bush's Corporate Cabinet
by Charlie Cray

The Repetitive Motion Un-Rule
by Deborah Weinstock

Arsenic and Old Regs
by Lynn Thorp

The Roadless Tramelled
by Ned Daly

Bankrupt Policies
by Jake Lewis

Bush’s Hot Air
by Phil Radford

Mining Their Own Business
by Charlie Cray

Defending Contractor Irresponsibility
by Robert Weissman

A Regulatory Accident in the Making
by Charlie Cray

Cheney and Halliburton: Go Where the Oil Is
by Kenny Bruno
and Jim Valette


The Politics and Law of Worker Rights
an interview with
William Gould


Behind the Lines

Challenging the Oiligarchy

The Front
Medical Privacy, For Now

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News


The Repetitive Motion Un-Rule

by Deborah Weinstock

After a decade of repetitive political jostling, in January U.S. workers finally won workplace protections to prevent crippling ergonomic injuries. Weeks later, they saw these protections yanked away by President George Bush in one of the new administration’s first substantive pieces of legislation.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) ergonomics standard was issued in November 2000 and went into effect on January 16. But business opponents, including the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, convinced their Congressional allies to rescind the new worker protection rules after less than a dozen hours of consideration.

The Bush administration’s position statement on the ergonomics standard reads like it was lifted from the Chamber of Commerce’s position. President Bush says “the rule would have applied a bureaucratic one-size-fits-all solution to a broad range of employers and workers –– not good government at work.”

OSHA’s proposed rules would have required businesses to provide workers with basic information about common musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), including risk factors associated with MSDs and the importance of early recognition of symptoms. Once an employee reported an MSD, companies would also have been required to take further steps to evaluate whether or not workplace factors –– including repetition and force — pose MSD hazards. Such hazards would have then been eliminated or controlled.

“From the start, OSHA was wrong on the substance and wrong on the process, and we couldn’t be more pleased that Congress has voted to scrap this expensive and unworkable rule,” Jerry Jasinowski, NAM’s president said the night the House of Representatives voted to overturn the regulation under the Congressional Review Act. The Congressional Review Act, passed in 1996, enables Congress to rescind executive branch-issued regulations through a joint resolution of disapproval (JRD). Unless the President vetoes a JRD, the regulations are treated as if they had never been issued, and may not be repromulgated in the same form unless a law is passed subsequent to the JRD.

Throughout the 10-year struggle to pass the ergonomics rule, OSHA has been hamstrung by Congressional budget restrictions limiting its ability to work on the rule, while agreeing numerous times to delay issuing the rule until repeated calls for more scientific evidence could be satisfied. Work on the ergonomics standard began more than a decade ago under the first Bush administration, when Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole was convinced that enough evidence already existed to demonstrate the need for workplace ergonomics standards.

“These painful and sometimes crippling illnesses now make up 48 percent of all recordable industrial workplace illnesses,” Dole said in announcing work on the rule in 1990. “We must do our utmost to protect workers from these hazards, not only in the red meat industry but all U.S. industries.” Dole pledged that the Department of Labor was “committed to taking the most effective steps necessary to address the problem of ergonomic hazards on an industry-wide basis.”

The Labor Department went on to develop educational and outreach programs on ergonomics and held several stakeholder meetings to receive broad input before drafting the rules.

Although a comprehensive 1997 National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health report on “Musculoskeletal Disorders and Workplace Factors” concluded that “a large body of credible epidemiological research exists that shows a consistent relationship between MSDs and certain physical factors,” NAM and Congressional allies continued to argue for the need for further study. The National Academy of Science (NAS) ended up releasing two additional reports –– one in 1998 and one in 2001 –– confirming that musculoskeletal disorders are caused by workplace exposures to heavy lifting, repetition, force and vibration and “interventions incorporating elements of OSHA’s ergonomics standard have been proven to protect workers from ergonomic hazards.”

As the evidence piled up, industry front groups such as the National Coalition on Ergonomics began to shift emphasis, suggesting that OSHA’s completed rules would be too expensive to implement.

“There needs to be a balance between and an understanding of the costs and benefits associated with federal regulations,” President Bush agreed. “In this instance, though, in exchange for uncertain benefits, the ergonomics rule would have cost both large and small employers billions of dollars and presented employers with overwhelming compliance challenges.”

While OSHA says the expected cost of the rule would be about $4.5 billion per year, the agency estimates that the rule would prevent 4.6 million MSDs in the first 10 years, bringing $9.1 billion in total annual savings.

NAM, citing the Small Business Association, says the rule would have cost industries $18 billion per year, $6.7 billion of which would be paid by small and medium-sized manufacturers, some of whom they claim would be “financially crippled” by the rule.
The NAS estimates that each year one million people take time away from work to treat and recover from MSD pain or functional impairment, while MSDs account for an estimated 70 million physician office visits. The annual economic burden of MSDs, as measured by compensation costs, lost wages and lost productivity, is about $50 billion.

“This is a president who said, as a candidate, ‘judge me by my record,’” says AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

“The record is clear,” Sweeney says. “The first substantive legislation signed by President George Bush is a rollback by Congress of a health and safety standard — the first in OSHA’s 30-year history.”

“Ergonomic injuries are our nation’s biggest workplace safety problem,” Sweeney says.

“Killing this worker safety standard will result in hundreds of thousands more such injuries.”

Each day there is no ergonomics standard, more than 4,900 workers are injured by ergonomic hazards at work.

Deborah Weinstock works in the Occupational Safety and Health Department of the AFL-CIO.

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