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OSHA's New Ergonomic Guidelines:
A Plan to Develop a Plan?

On April 5, 2002,
Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao
announced a "four-pronged
comprehensive approach to ergonomics
that the agency believes will quickly
 and effectively address MSDs
(MusculoSkeletal Disorders)
in the workplace."

UE News, April, 2002 David Kotelchuck

On April 5, 2002, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao announced a "four-pronged comprehensive approach to ergonomics that the agency believes will quickly and effectively address MSDs (MusculoSkeletal Disorders) in the workplace." Her announcement came a little over one year after Congress passed a precedent-setting repeal of the then-existing OSHA Ergonomics standard, a repeal President Bush signed into law in March 2001.

Secretary Chao’s recent announcement has run into a firestorm of opposition by Democratic Senators and AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney. Senator Christopher Dodd (D., Conn.) noted that promised industry-specific guidelines have not been developed so far even for one US industry. "What we have here is a plan to develop a plan," he said.

AFL-CIO President Sweeney was harsher in his criticism. He called the Administration’s plan "an insult." "Since the repeal of the [OSHA Ergonomics] rule last year, 1.8 million workers have suffered injuries such as back injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome." He also noted that women workers suffer a disproportionate number of such injuries: two-thirds of all reported carpal tunnel cases in 1999 and 61 percent of all tendonitis cases, even though they represent less than half of the U.S. workforce. The new ergonomics plan, he said, is a "meaningless measure that provides workers with no protection."


The four prongs of the Administration’s plan, announced by Secretary Chao, are:

Industry-or-task-specific guidelines for a "number of industries." Secretary Chao named the nursing home industry as the first for which these guidelines will be developed. Read: they haven’t developed them yet. The guidelines will be announced later this year. The Secretary did not announce or reveal in later Congressional hearings in which other industries guidelines would be developed for and when they would be announced. OSHA Administrator Jack Henshaw said his agency "will immediately begin work on developing industry and task-specific guidelines." These comments are what led Sen. Dodd and other Democratic legislators to call this "a plan to develop a plan."

Enforcement. Secretary Chao pledged to use the so-called General Duty Clause of the OSHA law to prosecute "bad actors." (This clause says that beyond compliance with specific OSHA standards, employers have a general responsibility to maintain a workplace "free from recognized hazards.") But then she went out of her way to assure employers that she would go easy on them. In a publication called "Frequently-Asked Questions (FAQs)," designed to answer questions by the general public about the new ergonomics guidelines, OSHA, a division of the US Dept. of Labor, says: "A guideline is a tool to assist employers in recognizing and controlling hazards. It is voluntary." So if an employer wishes to ignore these industry guidelines, he/she/they can do so.

Since OSHA inspectors will not look for compliance with their guidelines, they will simply look for the presence of ergonomic hazards in the workplace. If a "serious" hazard is observed, the employer will receive an "ergonomic hazard alert letter." OSHA then pledges to re-inspect the workplace within 12 months to see if the ergonomic hazard or hazards have been removed. If not, they may issue a General Duty Clause citation. A major problem with this "early warning" advisory approach: With less than 3,000 OSHA federal and state OSHA inspectors nationwide for over 100 million U.S. workplaces, most U.S. workplaces are rarely, if ever, inspected. Early warning and consultation approaches mean that employers can, if they wish, simply do nothing about ergonomic hazards until the inspector visits them, and then can get help at taxpayer expense (see below) to remedy the problems. So-called first instance citations, that is citations for violations whenever an OSHA inspector calls, mean that employers have an incentive to be in compliance with OSHA regulations at all times.

Outreach and Assistance: If firms and businesses seek help in coping with ergonomics problems, say after receiving a hazard alert letter, the Secretary offered to provide technical assistance and training for them and their employees. OSHA training grants will also be targeted to address ergonomics and other agency priorities. Also a special emphasis program is being developed to assist "Hispanic and other immigrant workers." One problem with this approach: Where will the $$$ come from? The Bush Administration has proposed cutting funds for OSHA enforcement, worker training, and research on OSH hazards.

Research: OSHA is for it. The Secretary has pledged to appoint an advisory committee to look into areas of ergonomics research that need further study. This would be the fifth such scientific advisory panel, to this writer’s knowledge, established by a federal agency or research institute over the past two decades.

(UPDATE: How well has the Bush Administration lived up to the promises listed in this article? Find out: we revisited these issues (December, 2002)


The Bush Administration’s plan to deal with ergonomics hazards and injuries in the workplace is largely an empty suit. At best it sets up a federal administrative structure to deal with these problems. But it has not yet set up guidelines for any U.S. industries or operations, one year after the federal OSHA Ergonomics Standard was repealed. We have only promises of guidelines to deal with workplace problems on the ground — in the shop and on the production floor.

And meanwhile workers by the thousands suffer from back and repetitive strain injuries in workplaces across the US. These are injuries that could have been eliminated in many cases, and made less severe in others, if the approved OSHA Ergonomics standard had been left in place while the new Administration decided what it want to do.


The Congressional response to the Administration’s non-approach to ergonomics in the workplace has been decidedly chilly. As a result, two U.S. Senators — Sen. John Breaux, a Democrat from Louisiana who voted for repeal of the OSHA Standard last year, and Senator Arlen Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania who voted against the repeal —have joined forces to sponsor a new bill that would require OSHA to re-issue a final standard to cover workplace ergonomic hazards within two years. So far the bill (S.598) has picked up 22 other sponsors in the Senate, and has been referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, chaired by Senator Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.). The AFL-CIO has strongly endorsed the bill. (At the time of this writing, no companion bill has yet been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. This is expected soon.)

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