UE News, October 1998
After four years of constant Republican attacks in the U.S. Congress, it
finally looks like the tide is turning in the fight for an OSHA ergonomics standard to
Repetitive stain injuries (RSIs), such as the painful, disabling carpal
tunnel syndrome, are the most rapidly increasing category of work-related occupational
illnesses. Although the total number of such cases has declined slightly in the past two
years, RSIs now represent nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the 481,000 occupational
illnesses reported annually to OSHA. Fifteen years ago, such cases made up only a small
percentage of all nationally reported occupational illnesses.
Nevertheless, anti-labor Congressional Republicans have blocked federal
efforts to enact a worker-protective OSHA ergonomics standard since they took over
Congress in 1994. Every year since then, the Republicans have attached an amendment to the
annual federal appropriations bill barring OSHA from issuing such a standard. Republican
leaders have argued strenuously that the scientific research work in this field is shoddy
"junk science," they call it. They argue that the research doesnt
prove that the current massive outbreak of painful wrist, arm, shoulder and back injuries
In last years budget, Republicans again attached a ban on an
ergonomics standard, but they agreed not to attach such a ban to the Fiscal Year 1999
budget, now being debated in Congress. But Senate Republicans tried to double-cross the
Democrats this year. Senators Gregg (R., N.H.) and Stevens (R., Alaska) introduced an
amendment to fund another long-term study of repetitive strain injuries by the National
Academy of Sciences (NAS). This would have been a three-year study, to follow up the
one-year study already under way by the NAS. This would not stop or delay a new standard,
these Senators argued, but it was obvious to all that delay was precisely the name of the
However, this time the delaying tactics failed. On Sept. 3, by a 14-14 tie
vote in the full Senate Appropriations Committee, the amendment was defeated! Two
Republican Senators, Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Ben Nighthorse Campbell of
Colorado, joined 12 Democratic Senators to defeat the measure. (Procedurally in the
Senate, a tie vote defeats such a measure.) While this margin of defeat was razor-thin,
this was the first time since 1994 such an OSHA budget amendment has been defeated,
despite strong labor and Democratic opposition over the years.
SCIENTISTS VS. GOP
In another blow to Republican "scientific experts" in the U.S.
Congress, the National Academy of Sciences completed its first study on ergonomics and
musculoskeletal disorders on Sept. 30. After convening a panel of 65 leading scientific
and medical experts on the subject, the NAS reviewed and evaluated the whole body of
scientific evidence that such medical problems are work-related. The panel concluded that:
Musculoskeletal disorders are a serious national problem.
The scientific literature clearly demonstrates that musculoskeletal
disorders in workers are caused by exposure to ergonomic hazards at work.
For most people, their main exposure to ergonomic hazards is in their
Scientific research clearly demonstrates that effective workplace
intervention is available which can reduce ergonomic hazards.
This NAS study confirms an earlier 1997 report by the National Institute
for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), which came to similar conclusions. It also
knocks for a loop the Republican strategy this year by Senators Gregg and Stevens to fund
a second, longer study on the same subject by the NAS since the results of the
first study were clear-cut, and dont leave any major scientific questions
... AND AGAIN!
In another scientific blow to Congressional scientific know-nothings, the
American National Standards Institute, a national advisory group funded and favored by
many large industries, overwhelmingly approved a recommended ergonomics standard for
industry after eight years of deliberation. (These folks dont rush their decisions!)
The group concluded that musculoskeletal disorders are associated with exposure to one or
more risk factors such as force, posture, motion, vibration and cold temperatures. It also
concluded that a reduction in exposure to these risk factors will reduce the likelihood
and severity of such disorders.
Clearly the circle is closing around Congressional and industrial
opponents of an OSHA ergonomics standard. This is not to say that Congressional anti-labor
diehards wont try once again to insert such a ban under the cover of last-minute
Congressional budget negotiations (which are still going on as the UE NEWS goes to
But whether or not they succeed again this year, their days of stalling
worker protections appear numbered. Continued political action by UE members and other
unionists throughout the year can assure this result.