Ergo undone: What happens now?

Forget about those October, 2001, compliance dates for informing employees about ergo risks and setting up a system for handling complaints. Forget about whether or not your ergo program is “grandfathered” into compliance. For the 85 percent of U.S. employers estimated by OSHA to have done nothing to address ergonomics, the heat is off.

But safety and health experts contacted by Industrial Safety & Hygiene News say it’s dumb to bury your head in the sand when it comes to ergonomics. “Something has to be done to address ergo injuries. An ergo rule is inevitable,” says Mark Hansen, director of environment, safety and health for Weatherford. Hansen says OSHA’s standard issued last November “can be viewed as a shot across your company’s bow. It was a warning that ergo is coming.”

Ergonomics is simply too big of a safety issue to suddenly disappear. Earlier this year, the National Academy of Sciences reported that one million injuries are caused each year by repetitive motions and other work-related ergo factors. Even as they were attacking OSHA’s standard, Congressional Republicans conceded that the issue must be addressed. “We are not trying to kill ergonomics protection,” said Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.). “We are voting on one thing and one thing only, this Clinton ergonomics rule.”

To soften the blow, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao went on record shortly before the Senate vote saying a “comprehensive approach to ergonomics” would be pursued by the Labor Department. “Repetitive stress injuries in the workplace are an important problem,” she said. Under the Bush administration, OSHA could draw up new ergo rules, issue voluntary guidelines, or continue to cite employers for ergo problems using the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, according to sources.

Pressure to act will not fade. One day after the House vote, Sen. John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat who voted to repeal the rule, introduced a bill requiring the Labor Department to issue new rules covering ergonomics within two years.

Arguing against the Clinton ergo standard in an editorial titled, “Ergonomic Idiocy”, The Wall Street Journal said, “We have no doubt that ergonomic injuries are a growing problem in some occupations.” The paper said the Bush administration could issue guidelines while rewriting requirements.

A week after the ergo rule went down, union leaders were scheduled to meet with Labor Secretary Chao “to hold her to her statement that she wants to develop a new proposal to protect workers from ergonomics injuries,” according to a union safety official.

“We’ll fight the long fight. It took 17 years to set a confined space standard,” says Bill Borwegen, safety and health director of the Service Employees International Union.

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