Two-year ergo timetable 'ambitious'

Labor Department Secretary Elaine Chao told a Senate subcommittee Wednesday that two years — a deadline called for in a pending bill — is not enough time for the department to develop a new nationwide ergonomics standard.

Chao, testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee's Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Subcommittee, said devising a new workplace safety standard will go beyond that time frame, because the topic is complex and involves a lot of stakeholders and because her tenure at Labor is just beginning.

"Two years for this kind of rule seems overly ambitious," she said.

Sen. John Breaux (R-La.) introduced a bill in March calling for Labor to issue a new ergonomics rule within two years of the bill's passage.

Chao said she's been under a lot of pressure during her first months on the job, in large part because the Senate has confirmed only two members of her staff so far, making it difficult to address congressional demands for a new ergonomics rule.

"We're a new team," she said. "We want to be responsive...but we're not there yet."

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a co-sponsor of the bill and chairman of the subcommittee, said he'd like Labor to seek input from companies with successful ergonomics programs, such as UPS. Hearing that some companies have not responded to Labor's requests, Specter said he would issue subpoenas to compel them to share their best practices with the subcommittee if necessary.

Labor, under former President Clinton, issued a final ergonomics standard in November 2000 after more than 10 years of study, expert testimony and public input. The rule would have required workplaces nationwide — including federal agencies — to implement a structured ergonomics safety program and adjust injury-inducing equipment when a worker suffered a job-related musculoskeletal injury.

Poorly designed computer workstations contribute significantly to the number of job-related injuries each year.

Congressional opponents, calling the rule overly complex, costly and burdensome to businesses of all sizes, repealed the rule in March under the Congressional Review Act of 1996, and President Bush signed the measure soon after.

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