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Ergonomics Progress!

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 protect workers.

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 doesn’t prove that the current massive outbreak of painful wrist, arm, shoulder and back injuries is work-related.

In last year’s 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 game.

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.


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 workplace.

  • 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 don’t leave any major scientific questions unanswered.


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 don’t 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 won’t 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 press).

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.

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