Enough Hard Feelings To Go Around

April 1, 2001
It's time to bury the hatchet and come to a compromise on the OSHA repetitive stress regulation.

Enough Hard Feelings To Go Around

OSHA’S ergonomics standard is fightin’ words.

No sooner had the Senate and the House voted to repeal the standard than the benches emptied and the brawl started. What should have been a discussion on the merits of an OSHA standard that was written "to address the significant risk of work-related musculoskeletal disorders" turned into a name-calling contest in which "foul!" was the operative word.

Members of Congress were split: Most Democrats favored the standard; most Republicans voted to overturn it. Last November the Democrats railroaded the standard into existence; this March the Republicans derailed it.

The derailers in the House and Senate used an untested new law, the Congressional Review Act, to do the job. Basically, the act gives Congress the authority to reject any regulation issued by a federal agency within 60 days after it goes into effect.

Newspapers have been adding to the confusion by referring to the standard as workplace safety regulations or safety rules or worker injury rules. And just after I’ve learned how to spell "musculoskeletal disorders," for crying out loud!

Speaking of accuracy, here are a few facts that didn’t make it into most newspaper accounts:

• The standard is about ergonomic injuries only. If you slip or fall or break a leg in the workplace, it’s not covered by this regulation.

• The standard covers more than the repetitive-motion injuries mentioned in most newspaper accounts. Ergonomics risk factors listed in the standard’s preamble include force; repetition; awkward or static postures; contact stress; vibration, and cold temperatures. So an employee who had to stand in one spot out in the cold would have a double grievance under the standard.

• It’s really not a "Clinton standard," no matter what the headlines read. It was written by folks in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and loaded with studies from the National Institute of Safety and Health (NIOSH). President Clinton supported the legislation and promised to sign it. But it wasn’t one of those last-minute rules he dumped on Congress on the way out of the White House.

Both Democrats and Republicans played hardball with this standard right from the beginning. The subject of ergonomics was kicked around in OSHA and NIOSH at least 10 years ago, but the proposed rule wasn’t published until November 1999. Previous to this a series of public hearings was held that generated more than 8,000 written comments from more than 700 witnesses. The goal was to get the standard signed by President Clinton before he left office (Vice President Gore also promised to sign the standard, but its backers wanted to be sure in case Gore didn’t win the election).

A neutral observer might conclude that Democrats used the standard to assure the labor vote, while Republicans got support from business.

The standard has been politicized so heavily that compromise will be difficult even though it’s needed. While the standard was too broad, too vague and too bureaucratic, ergonomics has much to offer the workplace. For many activities like lifting, pushing, orderpicking, receiving and shipping, ergonomics is merely a refinement of material handling in plants and warehouses.

Material handling has proved its worth to businesses and workers alike. Ergonomics can, too. But not if it’s a fightin’ word.

Bernie Knill

contributing editor

[email protected]

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