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UE NEWS HEALTH AND SAFETY


Ergonomics
Double-Cross!

UE News, July 1998

Double-talking, double-crossing, anti-labor legislators in the U.S. House and Senate are maneuvering once again to block an OSHA ergonomics standard. This standard seeks to protect U.S. working men and women from painful, disabling wrist, shoulder and back injuries.

Working people suffered 281,000 repeated trauma disorders in 1996, according to the most recent OSHA data. These represent 64 percent of all reported work-related illnesses in 1996. And 60 percent of these occur in manufacturing industries.

Those who go on to develop carpal tunnel syndrome, one of the most serious of these disorders, lose a median of 25 days of work. This is the greatest loss of time on average among all categories of workplace injury and illness. This is also a greater average of loss of time than that by workers who suffer amputations! (Amputation victims lose a median 20 days, in most cases due to loss of a finger.)

How has the U.S. Congress and most U.S. industries responded to this epidemic? They have either denied that repetitive trauma orders such as carpal tunnel syndrome are work-related, or said that not enough is known about these disorders — let’s study them some more! (For the record, OSHA began serious work on this issue in 1979, when it hired its first professional ergonomist.)

To drive this message home, one of the first acts of the 1996 Gingrich/Dole Congress was to pass a budget amendment prohibiting OSHA from issuing an ergonomics standard, or even proposing a standard. Congress also threatened that year to abolish NIOSH, the research arm of the federal worker health and safety agency. Eventually President Clinton signed a budget preserving NIOSH, but banning an OSHA standard during fiscal year 1996.

The next year, during the debate on the 1997 budget, Congressional Democrats led by Rep. Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco fought back and repealed this amendment (see UE NEWS, August 1996). But the Republicans weren’t through yet — last year they came back again with the same budget amendment. The result was a legislative compromise which continued to undermine worker protection:

OSHA could not issue an ergonomics standard in 1998, but it could propose one for future enactment, and Republican lawmakers agreed not to restrict ergonomics standard-setting in future budget bills. President Clinton signed this budget into place last November; the ban on an ergonomics standard remains in effect until the end of the fiscal year (Sept. 30, 1998).

DOUBLE DOUBLE-CROSS

The ban is itself a double-cross of worker health and safety protection. And despite last year’s "gentleman’s agreement," the Republicans have another double-cross up their sleeves. Echoing the "we-don’t-know-enough-about-repetitive-strain-injuries" line, a House subcommittee voted last month to authorize a $890,000 for a two-year study on the subject. (NIOSH completed a major analysis of 600 epidemiological studies last year. See http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/ergoscil.html)

House lawmakers say they are not violating their agreement by proposing the study. But Senate Republicans say they are not bound by any such agreement. So seven of them, led by Senators Gregg of New Hampshire and Nickles of Oklahoma, say they will push for another two-year delay until the study by the National Academy of Sciences is completed.

This transparent collusion by House and Senate Republicans is an effort to weasel out of last year’s agreement. We already know plenty about repetitive trauma and clearly most are work-related. We can’t let Congress get away with this. Through your local’s political action committee, tell your Senators that you oppose any ban on an OSHA ergonomics standard.

It is particularly important to contact Senators who are members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, chaired by Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) Other members of this subcommittee include Senators Byrd (W.Va.), Harkin (Iowa), Leahy (Vt.), Lautenberg (N.J.) and Mikulski (Md.).

The bill will not by voted on by this subcommittee until the end of July at the earliest, and probably not until the fall. The entire Senate will not vote on the budget until the fall. Through your local union, speak out now!


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