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OSHA's ergonomics rules should wait, House decides

A 217-209 vote calls for halting action by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration until the National Academy of Science completes a study of repetitive motion injuries in the workplace.

For 30 years, federal safety experts have been studying the crippling repetitive motion injuries that some workers say they suffer after spending day after day pecking at a computer keyboard, lifting heavy boxes or chopping freshly slaughtered chickens.

Now, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is on the verge of publishing rules for employers to follow to avoid these on-the-job injuries.

But wait, some Republicans say, OSHA is moving too fast.

"There is no need to rush," says Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, one of many Republicans arguing for more time to study the problem. "Let us let the scientists decide, let us let the researchers decide. Let us not turn this process over to a power-hungry federal agency and labor unions that are also behind it."

The GOP's cautious approach prevailed last week in the House, which voted 217-209 along party lines to halt any action by OSHA until the National Academy of Sciences completes a study of the problem in 2001. If the measure becomes law, it would stall OSHA's plan to issue regulations this year governing repetitive workplace activities such as lifting, walking, turning, climbing, keyboarding and sitting.

More than 600,000 workers in all industries suffer workplace injuries that could be prevented by better standards, according to the Labor Department. Agency officials estimate such injuries cost employers more than $15-billion a year. The most prevalent of these is carpal tunnel syndrome, which results in wrist pain.

Democrats note the government has done two major studies that found a link between repetitive workplace tasks and many muscular-skeletal injuries sustained by workers. "It is time to take the knowledge and information we have and put it in place so that we can protect the workers," Rep. Bruce F. Vento, D-Minn., said during the House debate.

But Republicans say OSHA ergonomics standards would add burdensome costs to businesses, particularly small ones that can least afford it. By OSHA's own estimates, they add, the new regulations would cost business $3.5-billion a year.

The measure approved last week may still be halted by Democrats in the Senate or by President Clinton's threatened veto. But Republicans may manage to block OSHA from acting by adding the measure to a government funding bill Clinton must sign.

There is little reason to doubt the Republicans will prevail. The history of the government's efforts to mandate the science of ergonomics in the workplace is a tale of one delay after another.

In 1979, OSHA hired its first ergonomist and began talking with business and labor about restructuring workplace tasks. But it was 1987 before OSHA cited a company, Chrysler, for ergonomics hazards, and the agency did not begin drafting workplace standards until 1994.

Congress has contributed to OSHA's slow pace. In June 1995, Congress approved legislation that prohibited OSHA from spending taxpayer money to issue workplace ergonomics standards. That halted rulemaking procedures at the agency for more than a year.

When Congress last year approved the expenditure of $890,000 for the latest National Academy of Sciences study, House Republican leaders promised Democrats it would not be used as a reason to delay the OSHA ergonomic standards. But that is precisely the study GOP members now say should be completed before further steps are taken.

The NAS study is unlikely to produce the higher level of scientific proof linking repetitive motion to workplace injuries that Republicans are demanding. Congress simply called on NAS to review the findings of hundreds of earlier studies. Both NAS and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have done similar reviews.

OSHA claims to have reviewed more than 2,000 scientific articles that establish a link between muscular-skeletal injuries and repetitive workplace tasks. "A substantial body of scientific evidence supports OSHA's effort to provide workers with ergonomic protection," the agency said in a recent statement.

Supporters of OSHA's efforts to issue ergonomic regulations include the American Public Health Association, the American Nurses Association and the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons.

But Republicans insist there is still reason to doubt the findings.

"We have had two years of hearings where we have heard, if nothing else, a lot of inconclusive evidence, a lot of people who are not positively sure what the cause is and are not positively sure how to solve the problem," said Rep. William F. Goodling, R-Pa., chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Goodling said "one of the most prominent back surgeons in the country" concluded after years of study that repetitive movements matter far less than "nonphysical factors, just stress in life, not enjoying one's job."

In many ways, it is a classic labor-management dispute, with Democrats supporting labor and Republicans listening to business. The AFL-CIO and most labor unions support OSHA's move to issue ergonomics regulations; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business oppose it.

Yet many major companies may not be affected by regulations because they have adopted strict ergonomic guidelines on their own. Red Wing Shoes of Minnesota cut workers' compensation costs by 75 percent by adopting ergonomic rules that cut down on injury claims, according to OSHA.

Republicans see these voluntary efforts as another reason OSHA should not rush into writing regulations. Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C., argues that OSHA is "behind the times."

"The current unemployment rate is so low that in many parts of the country employers do, and in fact must, offer the most attractive work environment in order to recruit and retain employes," Hayes said.

Republican Reps. Michael Bilirakis of Palm Harbor and C.W. Bill Young of Indian Rocks Beach voted with their party on this issue last week, as did Democratic Reps. Jim Davis of Tampa and Karen Thurman of Dunnellon.

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