Work-safety rules fall in post-Clinton era

With GOP in control, Congress is undoing a major labor-union victory.

Congressional repeal of workplace-injury rules issued in the final months of President Clinton's term in office would mark a major turning point in one of the longest-running, most contentious regulatory efforts ever undertaken by the federal government.

While it is possible that Bush officials will start over, and again study how to protect employees from health problems caused by repetitive tasks such as data entry or heavy lifting, new regulations proposed by a GOP administration would likely be more limited in scope than those drawn up by Democrats.

If nothing else, the effort to repeal the ergonomics rules shows the practical effect of power politics. Green Party leader Ralph Nader's jabs aside, there are large differences between the two big parties. The doomed regulations would have affected, for good or bad, every workplace in America. They were one of the top priorities of a core sector of Al Gore's support: labor unions.

"This is a big blow for labor. It's something they've pushed strongly and aggressively for in the past," says Sung Won Sohn, chief economist at Wells Fargo Bank. "It was their show of strength under the Clinton administration."

Indeed, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, speaking after the Senate voted Tuesday 56-to-44 to undo the rules, called the action "a naked payoff to big-business contributors who have opposed every effort to enact a standard protecting workers."

Not so, countered Republicans. The values at stake were freedom and restraint.

"It's probably the most expensive, intrusive regulation ever promulgated," said Sen. Don Nickles (R) of Oklahoma.

Few dispute that repeating the same physical action over and over can cause injury.

A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, requested by industry groups opposed to the Clinton-issued regulations, estimated that up to 1 million people lose time at work each year due to ergonomics-related injuries. The cost to the economy: $50 billion a year, according to NAS estimates.

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) first began looking into issuing regulations intended to prevent such injuries in 1990, under former President George Bush. After Bill Clinton took office, the effort expanded. After Republicans won control of the House in 1994, the battle over the scope of proposed regulations became a bitter one.

House Republicans managed to block the new ergonomics regulations throughout the mid-1990s. Only in 1997, after OSHA promised to restudy some of the science and economics behind the issue, did the House GOP allow work to proceed.

For years OSHA insisted that the regulations would have a positive economic benefit. They would cost businesses about $4.5 billion to implement over the next 10 years, according to OSHA estimates, while preventing about $9.1 billion in healthcare costs and lost worker time.

In general, this economic calculation is true, says Michael Riley, an industrial engineer and ergonomics expert at the University of Nebraska. "Companies with good ergonomic practices will have few injuries, fewer worker absences, and in the long run will make more money," he says.

Dr. Riley has supported OSHA's effort, saying that good firms already have many of the recommended guidelines in place, and that corporate opposition to a certain extent has reflected fear of the unknown.

But many business groups don't see it that way. They consider it fear of having Uncle Sam pick their pocket, via burdensome, costly, and unnecessary controls. Business groups estimate cost of implementation at upwards of $100 billion.

Small businesses were particularly unhappy with the potential cost of the ergonomics regulations. In Brick Township, N.J., Jeanne Heisler, president of the Ronan insurance agency, had started to comply with the regulations by buying ergonomically correct keyboards at $150 a piece.

But it wasn't just the added cost of equipment. She says under the new rules, her potential costs were going to skyrocket if an employee had an ergonomic injury. Under New Jersey workers' compensation laws, there is a cap on how long her insurance has to pay an injured worker. The firm has to pay only two-thirds of the worker's salary. Under the Clinton rules, there would have been no cap and the insurer would pay 90 percent of the worker's salary.

Business groups were concerned over how fast the Clinton administration moved on the standards. "We realize it was political payback, but it was an extremely abbreviated process," says Jeffrey McGuiness of the Labor Policy Association, a human-resources group.

Even though OSHA had talked about such regulations for 10 years, Mr. McGuiness says the actual rules were not proposed until a year ago November. The industry had 60 days for comments, followed by hearings.

McGuiness says his organization is not opposed to an ergonomics standard. But he says, "there is a lot of division even in the medical community over what the causes of injuries are," and businesses want a standard that makes sense.

At time of writing, the House was also expected to repeal the regulations under a little-used 1996 law that gives Congress the power to review agency rulemaking.

Dante Chinni contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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