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Ersatz Ergonomics

UE News, June 2001 David Kotelchuck

Webster’s Dictionary defines "ersatz" as a "substitute. The word usually suggests inferior quality." This seems like a perfect description of the series of three public forums on "Guiding Principles" for a new approach to ergonomics, announced by Secretary of Labor Ellen Chao on June 7, 2001. (See

The Secretary talks about a "new approach" to ergonomics, and plans to develop a "course of action" on this issue. She doesn’t mention a new ergonomics standard in her announcement, because of course she is forbidden by law to hold hearings on a new OSHA Ergonomics standard until Congress overturns its current ban on an OSHA Ergonomics Standard, which President Bush signed on March 20, 2001.

So the Secretary is turning to a set of ersatz hearings on ergonomics, called public forums. The forums will be held in Washington, D.C. on July 16, Chicago on July 20, and California on July 24, 2001. The exact locations of the latter two forums, including the city in California where the that public forum will be held, will be announced later, according to the OSHA news release. (Are Labor Department operatives scurrying to find a city in California where they can be assured that the lights will be on, come July 24?)

The forums will consider the following three questions, according to OSHA announcement:

• "Question 1: What is an ergonomics injury? The Department of Labor is interested in establishing an accepted definition that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, employers and their employees can understand and apply.

•"Question 2: How can the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, employers and employees determine whether an ergonomics injury was caused by work-related activities or non-work-related activities; and, if the ergonomics injury was caused by a combination of the two, what is the appropriate response?

• "Question 3: What are the most useful and cost-effective types of government involvement to address workplace ergonomics injuries (e.g., rulemaking, guidelines, "best practices," publications/conferences, technical assistance, consultations, partnerships or combinations of such approaches)? The agency particularly invites comment on the advantages and disadvantages of each approach or combination of approaches."

The answer to the first question would seem self-evident: If a worker works on a job which involves repetitive strains, reports an arm, shoulder or back injury and has the injury verified as work-related by a doctor, then it is an ergonomics injury. That was basically the approach used in the old, overturned OSHA Ergonomics Standard. Employers and employees could certainly "understand and apply" that definition.

The second question certainly suggests that the new OSHA Administration wants to make sure any blame is spread from the workplace to activities in the worker’s home and personal life. Does, for example, the affected person play the piano, regularly use a screwdriver, play tennis, throw a baseball, etc.? Yes? Then you can’t blame the workplace much, can you? Nor does the affected worker "deserve" full workers compensation payments, does she?

AFL-CIO Director of Health and Safety Peg Seminario sees a deeper motive to this line of questioning: "The questions that DOL (the Dept. of Labor) is asking are clearly an attempt to attack not only the science behind ergonomics, but on how ergonomic injuries are counted and recorded." The National Association of Manufacturers, she asserts, "has challenged OSHA’s revised recordkeeping rule and wants DOL to change the way MSDs (musculoskeletal disorders) are recorded in order to define the problem away. It appears that DOL may be using these forums as justification to do exactly that."

Notice that the third of the Secretary’s questions, in looking for alternative approaches, carefully avoids the word "standard," although it mentions a synonym: "rulemaking."

Seminario aptly describes the forums as "a sham and a fraud backed by industry and Republicans in Congress. The questions being asked by DOL are one-sided, reflecting only concerns and issues raised by industry opponents. These questions have been asked and answered, not just by NIOSH and two congressionally mandated National Academy of Sciences reports, but through 10 weeks and 18,000 pages of public hearing testimony that ended just over a year ago, as well as hundreds of thousands of pages of additional records collected over ten years that rest in the OSHA ergonomics docket right down the hall from the Secretary."

Ersatz hearings? You bet!

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Bush Announces
New OSHA Secretary

On June 13, 2001 Pres. George Bush announced the appointment of a new Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, John L. (Jack) Henshaw. Here’s how the White House described Mr. Henshaw’s career in its press release:

Henshaw "is presently the Director of Environment, Safety and Health for Astaris, LLC, in St. Louis, Missouri, and was previously the Director of Environment, Safety and Health for Solutia, Inc. From 1975 to 1995, he was with Monsanto Company in a variety of positions including Corporate Director of Quality and Compliance Assurance and Corporate Stewardship for Environmental Safety and Health and as Corporate Industrial Hygiene Director."

Astaris LLC, according to the Washington Post (6/13/01), is "a recent joint venture between Solutia Inc. and FMC Corp., two chemical companies. It is a manufacturer and marketer of phosphorus and phosphate products for consumer and industrial applications." Solutia, his former employer, is "a spinoff from Monsanto, where he was corporate director of quality and compliance assurance from 1995 to 1997."

As a former top corporate director of health and safety for three major chemical companies, Henshaw clearly knows which side he’s on. However, he may not be strongly opposed for the nomination, since as several labor leaders have noted to the press, he does have knowledge of the subject area he is to administer (which comes as a pleasant surprise from this Administration!) and he has worked cooperatively with labor unions representing workers in the chemical plants he has been associated with.

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