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Bush, Congress to Injured
Workers: Suffer!


Voodoo Ergonomics ....

Worker health and safety activists are calling it "the nuclear bomb of deregulation" and "the OSHA crime of the century."

For the hundreds of thousands of workers in offices and factories who suffer from painful, disabling repetitive strain injuries, the vote in Congress earlier this month to repeal the new ergonomics standards is both insult and injury. The Bush Administration and Congress have sent a clear message that profits are more entitled to protection than workers whose lives are disrupted by damaged wrists, elbows and necks.

President Bill Clinton issued the ergonomics standard in November, in response to a decade-long demand by the labor movement for action to combat the epidemic of injuries resulting from repetitive motion on the job. The ergonomics regulation would have prevented as many as 500,000 injuries a year.

Repetitive strain injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, now represent nearly two-thirds of the occupational illnesses reported annually to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Throughout the 1990s, Republican Senators repeatedly banned an OSHA ergonomics standard, claiming the issue needed additional study.

That argument surfaced yet again in the House and Senate debates earlier this month. "OSHA rushed through the rulemaking process," fumed Wyoming Republican Sen. Mike Enzi. Complained Rep. Anne M. Northup (R., Ky.), "You’re creating an enormously expensive regulation without true evidence of what we will get out of it."

As reported previously in the UE NEWS (see: our Health & Safety index), 10 years of studies and hearings have demonstrated conclusively the need for an ergonomics regulation. For example, the National Academy of Sciences in a report released in September 1998 found that the scientific literature clearly demonstrates that workers’ musculoskeletal disorders are caused by exposure to ergonomic hazards at work. These leading scientific and medical experts also decided that effective workplace intervention is available to reduce ergonomic hazards.


The vote by Congress to kill the ergonomics standard represents the first time in OSHA’s 30-year history that a bill has been adopted in both Houses and signed into law repealing a worker health and safety protection.

"This is special-interest legislation," declared Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.). "This is a political payoff. Make no mistake about it."

"This is special-interest legislation," declared Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.). "This is a political payoff. Make no mistake about it."

The Senate voted 56 to 44 on March 6 to rescind the regulation, with six Democrats joining all of the Republicans in voting to strip workers of ergonomics protection.

The following day, the House voted 223 to 206 for repeal. Sixteen Democrats joined the Republican majority, while 13 Republicans voted to keep the regulations.

"I have not in my entire time in the Congress seen such an awful example of rushing to the floor just a few months after an election trying to get through special interest legislation," said Rep. Richard Gephardt (D., Mo.), the House Minority leader.

This didn’t have to happen, says Scott Schneider of the Workers Institute for Health and Safety: "The fact is that Congress and the Republicans had other less drastic options. They could have asked the Secretary of Labor to reconsider the rule, reopen the rule, hold hearings on parts of the rule or stay the rule. Or they could have waited for the 31 lawsuits to be resolved and have the courts, as they often do, tell OSHA to go back to the drawing board and redo parts or all of the rule. But instead, they decided, since they had the votes, to kill the rule as a payback to big business."


The Bush Administration and Republican majority took advantage of a never-used and little-understood law. The Congressional Review Act of 1996, a Gingrich-era law, gives lawmakers a limited opportunity to rush through repeal of new regulations without amendments and little debate. Close cooperation between the Republican leadership and business groups hatched the plan for a lightning strike on the ergonomics standard.

The argument advanced by some Republicans, that they aren’t opposed to ergonomics protection, just this particular regulation, is "simply dishonest"

The argument advanced by some Republicans, that they aren’t opposed to ergonomics protection, just this particular regulation, is "simply dishonest," objects David Kotelchuck, UE NEWS health and safety columnist. "Opponents of the ergonomics standard have opposed every single ergonomics regulation proposed by OSHA over the past 10 years," he points out. "Until a year ago, opponents of this ergo standard were saying, and many still say, that the body of scientific studies on which the ergonomics standard is based represent ‘junk science.’ This concept of ‘junk science’ was dreamed up and propagated by lawyers, not scientists. Scientists are in basic agreement that repetitive strain injuries are caused by harmful workplace activities."

Thousands of workers are crippled by injuries, and many thousands more will be as a result of this month’s action by Congress, Kotelchuck says. "We need an ergonomics standard now, we’ve needed one for over a decade, and workers will continue to be crippled unless and until we have an effective standard. The struggle for such a standard continues, and it won’t end until workers get the protections which they need and deserve."

UE News - 03/01

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