Hill divided on ergo plan

Labor Department Secretary Elaine Chao failed to draw bipartisan support for her new approach to protecting employees from job-related injuries during a recent visit to Capitol Hill.

Chao, testifying before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee April 18, said developing voluntary guidelines — rather than mandatory ones — is the best way to reduce musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) among private- and public- sector employees.

Support and criticism for the Bush administration's new ergonomics plan, which also includes enforcement, outreach and research initiatives, fell along party lines.

"It is really only a plan to come up with a plan," said committee Chairman Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). "The administration's plan is a replay of failed strategies from the past. They rely on toothless voluntary guidelines that most corporations will simply ignore."

Congress and President Bush last year rejected a broad ergonomics standard that would have forced workplaces nationwide to follow a structured safety program and adjust injury-inducing equipment if an employee suffered from an MSD. Poorly designed computer workstations are a major cause of the disorders.

"Even assuming that a scientifically valid rule could be prepared based on our current understanding of the nature of the relationship between work activities and certain injuries, following that route could take years," Chao said.

Favoring an immediate solution, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration unveiled a softened strategy April 5. OSHA expects to release ready-to-use guidelines this year to help employers tailor recommendations and best practices. The agency will first focus on nursing homes, then move to other high-hazard industries and eventually federal agencies.

"Guidelines suggest specific actions employers can take to address ergonomic hazards in the workplace, while recognizing that different workplaces have different needs," Chao said.

Other witnesses disagreed, however.

"It is my belief that all companies that were going to voluntarily implement ergonomics programs and address MSD injuries have done so already," testified Jacqueline Nowell, director of the occupational and safety health office at the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents the red meat, poultry, health care, garment and other industries. "With the lack of commitment by this [Labor Department] and this weak, nonprotective approach, there will be little incentive for companies to do the right thing."

Democrats registered similar complaints to Nowell's.

"Under the administration's voluntary plan, great emphasis is placed on the importance of training," Kennedy said. "Yet, the president's budget cuts workplace safety training by $7 million."

OSHA, however, has the funds to execute the plan this year and next, John Henshaw, assistant secretary of Labor for occupational safety and health, said at an April 5 news conference.

Republicans backed Labor's strategy, which they said avoids a "one-size-fits-all" mandate.

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