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Second thoughts on that ergo rule?

September 20, 2002
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New data show that OSHA probably will complete this fiscal year, ending Sept. 30, without citing a single employer for ergonomic injuries, sparking criticism from a surprisingly wide range of Washington power players, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

Most of the heat comes from labor unions, naturally. They've been hot ever since Congress struck down an 11th hour ergo standard issued in the last days of the Clinton administration.

Still, some lawmakers who rejected the Clinton rule feel that the Bush administration's approach of relying on voluntary guides is too soft. "It's become such a political issue that OSHA has to show some motion," Patrick Cleary of the National Association of Manufacturers told the WSJ.

"My gut says they're not ever going to do an enforcement action on anybody," Jackie Nowell, safety director for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, said in the article.

Ergonomic injuries such as back strain and carpal tunnel syndrome resulting in lost workdays fell slightly to 577,800 in 2000, the most recent year available, and have been falling for a decade. Business groups argue that companies have reduced injuries on their own, without OSHA's help.

OSHA chief John Henshaw says the lack of ergo-related citations (which could be issued under the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act) can be explained in part by the new ergo plan's rollout and subsequent inspector retraining.

Recently, OSHA has begun to inspect nursing homes for ergonomic injuries, published a voluntary guideline for nursing homes and proposed to delay implementation of a rule that defines ergonomic injuries and how companies should count them.

Unions are still unhappy. They don't like the policy of inspectors only conducting records checks if a nursing home's lost-workday injury rate doesn't exceed eight per 100 workers. And the Service Employees International Union claims the nursing-home guidelines lack specifics.

Henshaw says the guidelines are proposals at this point, subject to change. He also points to a settlement with nursing-home chain Beverly Enterprises, Inc. this year involving ergonomic injuries as proof OSHA is serious about nursing homes.

He hopes a successful program will quell controversy. "It ought to be depoliticized. This is a safety and health issue," he told the WSJ.

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