Feds still on the sideline

The battle over workplace regulations is heating up. Federal Computer Week recently reported how the Labor Department was slow to develop ergonomic regulations for all employees. Since then, the Senate committee with jurisdiction over such matters voted along party lines to revive efforts to impose new workplace safety standards for workers suffering from repetitive stress injuries.

The committee, led by the Democrats, voted to require Labor to come up with new, mandatory rules for protecting workers from such injuries.

Previously, Labor had come up with a proposal that would move at a snail's pace and would only be voluntary. Employee groups of all stripes complained bitterly. The Labor proposal doesn't provide for any enforceable standards and doesn't cover all workers at risk. Instead of creating substantial worker protections, it simply puts forward a plan to develop a plan.

Frequent readers of this column will remember that I was fairly critical of Labor. That's essentially because the department's proposal practically ignored feds, despite the fact that Labor and other elements of the executive branch have direct control over the federal workplace.

Unfortunately, recent events suggested that little has changed in that arena. If anything, the battle of any type of ergonomic regulations is likely to be a fierce one.

During the committee debate, Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) said the Democrats' bill goes too far and "could severely damage the economy" by imposing impossible costs of compliance on small businesses. "A vote for this bill is a vote against the viability of small businesses," Bond said.

Because I have not seen the specifics of the Democrat's proposal, I can't comment directly. It may very well be that it does indeed go too far. What irks me the most is that Bond offered no conciliatory counterproposal.

What he essentially said is that the viability of small businesses is more important than the health of American workers. What I would like to know is why it has to be an either/or proposition. Isn't there any way to protect workers from repetitive stress injuries in a cost- effective manner?

Why don't lawmakers try to find common ground?

So much more could be accomplished if the two parties weren't so adversarial.

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, meanwhile, sent the committee a letter objecting to the bill, saying she would recommend a veto if the bill reached the president's desk in its current form. What is most upsetting is that representatives of both parties said absolutely nothing about feds, telling us how important we are in the scheme of things.

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at milt.zall@verizon.net.

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