Bush, Congress to Injured
Worker health and safety activists are calling it "the
nuclear bomb of deregulation" and "the OSHA crime of the
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
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.
A DISGRACEFUL FIRST
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
is special-interest legislation," declared Sen. Edward Kennedy (D.,
Mass.). "This is a political payoff. Make no mistake about
"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
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.
argument advanced by some Republicans, that they aren’t opposed to
ergonomics protection, just this particular regulation, is "simply
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
UE News - 03/01