Congress not finished with ergo yet

Maybe it’s guilt, maybe it’s cover your political rear, maybe the rhetoric’s for real…

A week after killing off OSHA’s ergo rule, a group of senators are talking the talk when it comes to ergonomics. But will they walk the walk?

On March 13 during Senate debate over legislation to reform the nation’s bankruptcy laws, Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), offered an amendment that would require OSHA to issue a new ergonomics standard in two years.

The standard would:

  • address work-related musculoskeletal disorders and workplace ergonomic hazards;

  • not apply to non-work-related musculoskeletal disorders that occur outside the workplace or non-work-related musculoskeletal disorders that are aggravated by work; and

  • clearly define when and where an employer is required to take action to address ergonomic hazards; the measures required of an employer under the standard; and the compliance obligations of an employer under the standard.

    Also, the Secretary of Labor would be directed to ensure that nothing in the rule expands the application of state workers' compensation laws.

    Prior to the standard going into effect, OSHA would be required to develop information and training materials, and implement an outreach program and other initiatives, to provide compliance assistance to employers and employees concerning the new rule.

    The amendment, one of more than 90 proposed for the bankruptcy bill, was co-sponsored by Senators Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Max Cleland (D-Ga.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Zell Miller (D-Ga.), and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

    At press time, the Senate decided to limit debate on the bankruptcy bill, meaning the ergo amendment would not be addressed. There’s a chance it could be attached to other legislation later this year, according to Breaux. He said Senate staffers were working across party lines to negotiate an agreement on how Congress should direct OSHA to proceed with ergonomics.

    Breaux challenged his colleagues to “do something” about the ergo issue. To simply tell OSHA what it cannot do “doesn't give any guidance,” he said.

    “I do not, for the life of me, understand why this would not be something that should not be unanimously agreed to by Republicans as well as my Democrat colleagues,” Breaux said from the Senate floor.

    Sen. Lincoln added: “I do not believe our action to overturn the current ergonomics rule should in any way be interpreted as congressional intention to end the debate on this issue of workplace safety.

    “If we fail to come back with anything else, and if we fail to encourage the Department of Labor to come up with something that is reasonable and workable, then we, once again, have failed everyone — businesses and employees — because we can do better at providing better workplace safety,” said Lincoln.

    Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), one of the leaders of last week’s fight against the ergo standard, responded: “These injuries are happening in this country and we need to do something about them.”

    Enzi favors ergo action that would emphasize small business consultation. He’d like to see an ergo standard modeled after state OSHA consultation programs. Professional consultants would come in, identify ergo problems and solutions, and if employers followed through, they would be off the hook for fines and violations.

    “I am not worried about the big businesspeople because they have the VPP program, the specialists, and they have the professionals on staff. The little guy… cannot digest all the information,” said Enzi.

    Enzi also said he plans to hold hearings on the ergo issue, and meet with Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to discuss ergo options. His staff is currently reviewing OSHA’s 10-year history of ergo rulemaking to “see what was done and where it went wrong,” Enzi said.

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