Speaking out on ergo standards

Agencies, public cite risks, benefits at Labor Department forums

Agency union representatives are urging the Labor Department to establish a new workplace safety standard to replace the one rejected by Congress and President Bush earlier this year.

Howard Egerman, a claims representative for the Social Security Administration and a health and safety representative for the American Federation of Government Employees, told Labor officials that a proactive ergonomics standard focused on prevention is needed to help prevent injuries such as his—which include carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis—caused by working at poorly designed computer workstations. His injuries prevent him from being able to perform simple tasks, he said.

"If my boss, President Bush, had done work like mine, he might not have been able to run for president," Egerman said July 16 at the first of three public ergonomics forums held this month by the Labor Department. "He would not have been able to travel throughout the country shaking hands."

Congress voted in March, sustained by Bush's signature, to halt a sweeping ergonomics standard issued under the Clinton administration from going into effect. The standard—which would have covered workplaces nationwide, including federal agencies—would have compelled employers to institute ergonomics safety programs and adjust injury-inducing equipment.

After its rejection, which the rule's opponents said was necessary to stop a confusing and costly regulation, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said she would continue to address the issue. The three forums are intended to help Chao determine a final course of action by September.

At the initial forum, held in Arlington, Va., Egerman pushed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to establish a "Marshall Plan for Ergonomics," featuring joint labor/management committees that designate ergonomics trainers for every office or facility, recommend adjustable furniture and encourage a culture that doesn't stigmatize workers who file benefits claims for ergonomics injuries.

"The program will recognize that each American worker is entitled to safe and healthy workplaces," Egerman said.

James August, director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees' occupational health and safety program, said that the three areas Labor asked forum participants to address were already covered when the Clinton administration developed its standard.

"During the ergonomics rulemaking, OSHA received nearly 11,000 comments and briefs consisting of nearly 50,000 pages and heard from 714 witnesses and received over 18,000 pages of testimony," August said. "All of this was on top of voluminous information that OSHA has been collecting for more than a decade."

But during her opening remarks, Chao said the questions the forums are addressing are the same ones that caused members of Congress to overturn the ergonomics standard.

"Moderate Democrats and pro-union Republicans—who want to protect workers from ergonomics hazards—said the Department of Labor's regulation simply went too far," she said. "The issue isn't about whether we should deal with ergonomics injuries. It's about how we deal with them."

But at a Senate subcommittee hearing on the issue held July 18, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) called Labor's forums a "shell game" and charged that the Bush administration favors business interests over worker safety. "The science is so clearly on one sideand the politics is so clearly on the other," he said. "This has been raw political power."

However, Chris Spear, assistant secretary of Labor for policy, said Chao and other department officials are examining the issue in good faith. He noted that Chao has spent an inordinate amount of time on ergonomics during her first months as secretary and that organized labor represents about one-third of all the groups given limited time slots at the forums.It's about details

The Labor Department held three public forums this month—one in Arlington, Va., one in Chicago and one in Palo Alto, Calif.—to help Labor Secretary Elaine Chao decide how the government should address and approach workplace ergonomics injuries.

Forum presenters were asked to address three questions:

* What is an ergonomics injury, and how can a concise definition be developed that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, employers and em.ployees can apply?

* How can it be determined whether an injury is work-related, nonwork-related or a combination of the two, and what should be done if a cause is unclear?

* What are the most useful and cost- effective ways for the government to address ergonomics injuries?

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