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Republicans Hold
Government Hostage
Over Ergonomics Standard

UE News, November 2000

By David Kotelchuck

We suffer, too!

Remember just a few years ago when Rep. Newt Gingrich (R., Ga.) threatened to shut down the U.S. government unless he got his way. During the recent election, the Republicans said in many different ways that it realized this was a mistake and they wouldn’t try to do this again.

Well, they just have. Just a week before the November election, Republican Congressional leaders scuttled an agreement to pass the federal budget for the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services (HSS) for fiscal year 2001. The reason: They wanted to prevent the federal government from enacting an ergonomics standard to protect workers from repetitive strain injuries on the job.

And so the Congressional Republican leadership is willing to shut down a major part of the U.S. government in order to block such a standard. As a result Congress is going to have to convene a lame-duck session after the elections, and try again to pass this budget.

This is how the legislative impasse came about. Earlier this year the House and Senate passed the FY2001 Labor-HSS Appropriations bill, but with an amendment prohibiting OSHA from issuing its final ergonomics standard for yet another year. This was done despite major studies by NIOSH and the National Academy of Sciences showing that musculoskeletal disorders in workers, such as back injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome, are caused by ergonomic hazards at work. (See UE NEWS, October, 1998.) President Clinton promised to veto this anti-worker budget measure.


On Sunday, Oct. 31, negotiators from the White House and Republican and Democratic Congressional Appropriations leaders agreed to a compromise that would have permitted OSHA to issue the final standard, but would have delayed enforcement and compliance requirements until June 1, 2001. This agreement would allow the Clinton Administration to act, but would give the next Administration the opportunity to make a determination if the rule should be implemented. The AFL-CIO would have preferred no rider, but agreed to this compromise since it would make the standard a matter of record, and put the burden on the next Administration to modify or withdraw it, according to AFL-CIO Health and Safety Director Margaret Seminario.

But the next day, President Clinton was informed that Congressional leaders, at the behest of Rep. Tom Delay (R., Texas), the right-wing majority whip, refused to stand by the agreement. The lame duck session is now planned for December.


Meanwhile, the Administration, living up to its promise to labor leaders, implemented the ergonomics standard on its own on Monday, Nov. 13. This standard is very similar to the one the Administration announced on Nov. 22, 1999 (UE NEWS, December 1999).

The standard is a very moderate one. "What it basically requires is that when a plant has an ergonomics hazard and a musculoskeletal injury is reported, the employer must enact an ergonomic program.

This is what OSHA requires of any employer ergonomics program:

  • Management leadership — Establish a system to report and respond to signs and symptons of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

  • Employee participation — Workers must have access to information about the program, and input in developing, implementing and evaluating all program elements.

  • Job hazard analysis controls — Employers must uncover and eliminate or reduce all ergonomics hazards.

  • Worker training — Employers must provide initial and then periodic training to all affected employees (at least once every three years).

  • MSD management — Employers must provide access to a health-care professional for injured workers, and maintain workers’ pay while on work restriction.

  • Program evaluation and review — Programs must be evaluated and reviewed at least once every three years.

It doesn’t tell management what kind of a reporting system it must develop. It doesn’t tell them how many hours of training affected workers must receive, or what the content of the training must be. And it doesn’t tell them how workers must be involved in planning, just that workers must in some way be involved.


Does this sound as if government is trying to run a plant from Washington? Hardly! Yet on Nov. 8, the Wall Street Journal headlined its article on the standard: "New OSHA Proposal Enrages Business." This is about an ergonomics proposal that doesn’t even cover workers using computers unless someone both suffers and reports their injury!

This is what the UE NEWS said about the ergonomics standard a year ago:

"...we can expect no-holds-barred employer opposition to continue, aided by their Congressional allies. They don’t want to see this standard become law, even with its obvious limitations and limited worker coverage. Labor and its allies will have to fight hard to protect what is good about the proposed standard and expand its coverage to all affected workers." (UE NEWS, December 1999.)

This is as true after the standard has been enacted as before.

Editor's Note: This article has been altered slightly from the version which appeared in print. This version clarifies when an employer would have to enact an ergonomics program.

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