Navigation Bar

Home -> Heath & Safety Index -> Article


  and the

UE News, December, 2002 David Kotelchuck

The present Bush Administration is one of the most unfriendly to worker health and safety and to the environment of any since the major OSHA and environmental laws were passed in the 1960s and ‘70s. The Administration has not come up with any new ideas of its own on these issues, it just looked to its corporate allies for their programs and adopted these wholesale.

First and foremost the Bush Administration took aim at and repealed the OSHA Ergonomics Standard in March 2001. This standard, over a decade in the making, was the first and only OSHA standard ever repealed by Congress, an action then signed into law by a U.S. President.

This was done despite the fact that musculoskeletal disorders, as these ergonomics injuries are called, are the leading cause of work-related illnesses and conditions. On average over one and one-half million such cases are reported each year. They range from back injuries due to lifting to tendonitis and carpal tunnel disorders due to repetitive work-tasks. According to data from the year 2000, the most recent figures available, over half a million workers in the U.S. that year (577,800) suffered lost work time due to musculoskeletal injuries.

On April 5, 2002, on the first anniversary of the repeal of the Ergonomics Standard, Bush Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao announced a "four-pronged comprehensive approach to ergonomics that the agency believes will quickly and effectively address MSDs (Musculoskeletal Disorders) in the workplace" (see this column, UE NEWS, April 2002). Now, eight months later, let’s see how well (or poorly) she and the U.S. Department of Labor have done in carrying these out:

Promise 1: Industry-or-task-specific guidelines for a "number of industries."

Results as of November 2002: Only one set of industry-specific guidelines, for the nursing home industry, has been developed — and these have been criticized by unions in the health care industry as being too vague. Dozens of major U.S. industries are plagued by MSD injuries, yet no other sets of industry-specific guidelines exist. And remember, at the time of Secretary Chao’s announcement in April 2002, the repeal of the OSHA Ergonomics standard had already been in effect for one year, and no industry-specific plans were in place then. This is why some critics called her 2002 announcement "a plan to develop a plan."

Promise 2: Enforcement.

Secretary Chao pledged to use the so-called General Duty Clause of the OSHA law to prosecute "bad actors." As of September 2002, the federal OSHA Administration had not cited one single employer in the U.S. for ergonomics violations under this General Duty Clause.

Promise 3: Outreach and Assistance.

"If firms and businesses seek help in coping with ergonomics problems, the Secretary offered to provide technical assistance and training for them and their employees. OSHA training grants will also be targeted to address ergonomics and other agency priorities," Secretary Chao said. (UE NEWS, April 2002) The Bush Administration, in a budget-cutting measure, last month announced the elimination of the Susan Harwood Training Grant Program. Immediately cancelled were $4.8 million in training grants to 19 groups, most of them targeted for ergonomics training. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said, "Fully funded by Congress in this year’s budget, the grants targeted the most vulnerable workers —– immigrant and contingent workers, small business employees, and workers in such high-risk jobs as construction and sanitation."

Promise 4: Research.

The Bush Administration has proposed a 10 percent cut in next year’s budget for NIOSH, the federal government’s chief research agency for occupational safety and health.

It is not surprising that the Administration has been slow to prosecute ergonomics violators under the existing General Duty Clause of OSHA. Leading the enforcement division of the Department of Labor is Eugene Scalia, son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The AFL-CIO has said about him: "For nearly a decade he has made a career, both as an individual and on behalf of employer clients, opposing important workplace regulations and enforcement actions." He has a "track record of extreme and radical opposition to key worker protection initiatives including, but not limited to, regulation of workplace ergonomics. Scalia has taken a scorched-earth approach, …. that there is no scientific basis for ergonomics regulation of any kind." A lawyer, he has described the science behind ergonomics as "junk science par excellence" and "quackery." Mainstream health and safety experts, such as those from the National Academy of Sciences and from NIOSH, disagree.


Not to be outdone in reckless abandon in the area of environmental protection, the Bush Administration recently announced sweeping changes in the rules that allow polluting power plants to continue and expand their dirty operations without having to install any new pollution controls. This major move was announced at an EPA press conference on the last Friday before Thanksgiving. Despite the sweeping nature of these changes, EPA Administrator Christie Whitman, the Administration’s top environmental person, was not present at the press conference. Nor, for that matter, did the Administration undertake any new studies to "show" that these changes would not cause harm to the environment.

Most heavily affected by these changes will be the entire population of the New England states and the provinces of Eastern Canada, whose air is polluted by sulfur and dusts from the many dirty, old, coal-burning energy plants in the U.S. Midwest. Also the lakes and forests of these states and provinces will suffer from the "acid rain" of sulfur oxides heavily emitted by these plants.

This weakening of Clean Air regulations by the Bush Administration has been swept over by a massive wave of opposition and protest. Governors of these states, including Republican Governors such as George Pataki of New York, have protested these Bush moves. The Attorneys-General of all the New England states are now instituting a lawsuit against the changes. Perhaps the most interesting and insightful comment on the Bush Administration moves came from Independent Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont: "This early Christmas gift to industry means more pollution and less protection. If the Administration is so proud of these regulations, you have to ask yourself why they would wait until after the election, after Congress adjourns for the year and on the Friday afternoon before Thanksgiving to release them?"

Have a happy, healthful holiday season (if you can)!

page top

Home -> Heath & Safety Index -> Article

Home • About UE • Organize! • Independent Unions • Search • Site Guide • What's New • Contact UE
UE News • Political Action • Info for Workers • Resources • Education • Health & Safety • International • Links