It was Christmas in October for OSHA as Congress gave the agency two presents to begin fiscal year 1997.

It was Christmas in October for OSHA as Congress gave the agency two presents to begin fiscal year 1997: a seven-percent budget increase and no restrictions on moving ahead with an ergonomics standard. Both gifts came as surprises. For fiscal year 1996, OSHA operated much of the time on continuing budget resolutions amounting to a 15.5 percent funding cut, and finally was given a two-percent budget cut equaling $304 million. The agency will have $325.7 million to work with in 1997, it's largest budget ever. (NIOSH's budget also fared well, increasing from $129 million to $141.6 million.) Congress also lifted restrictions that were in place last year preventing OSHA from developing an ergonomics rule. House Republicans did try to attach language to the agency's fiscal year '97 budget that would have gone even further -- preventing OSHA from simply collecting data and research on ergonomics -- but 35 Republicans split ranks and joined with Democrats to defeat the proposal. "It was an extreme overreach," says AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario. "Any rational person knows there's a problem with ergonomics. Congress was not prepared to say that OSHA should do nothing." What OSHA does next is a hot topic in Washington safety and health circles, and in part depends on the outcome of this month's elections. At press time, OSHA officials were sorting out their options. Should the agency scrap its draft proposal for a standard that was bitterly opposed by business and go back to the drawing board? Or should it build on the work put into the draft? "There are merits to both arguments," says OSHA spokesman Stephen Gaskill. If President Clinton is reelected and OSHA chief Joe Dear continues in his post, work on the standard will definitely pick up. But Gaskill says the idea that OSHA will rush to unveil a proposal just isn't going to happen. "We're going to be reasoned and reasonable," he says. In late October, past the deadline for this report, Dear was scheduled to announce OSHA's ergonomics strategy at a conference in Michigan. Interviews with various players involved in the ergonomics debate indicate that a window of opportunity may exist for OSHA to move cautiously ahead with standards-setting without business and labor groups jumping down the agency's throat. "Ergonomics is not total BS, there's definitely (a problem there)," says an industry source. "I think business is coming to the realization that you can't sweep it all under the rug. If everyone keeps their cool and we all realize none of us can have our way, we'll pull it off (help OSHA issue a standard)."

A mandatory back belt policy contributed to reducing back injuries by one-third among Home Depot workers in California, according to research at the University of California at Los Angeles. The story landed on the front page of the Wall Street Journal on October 9. "We found compelling evidence that back supports can play an important role in helping reduce back injuries among workers who do a lot of lifting," says Jess Kraus, an epidemiologist and director of the UCLA-based Southern California Injury Prevention Research Center. Researchers studied the workplace injury history of 36,000 Home Depot workers over a six-year period and found that low- back injuries fell by 34 percent after the company imposed a strict policy on back support use. One source described the policy as "no exceptions, no excuses." Compliance with the policy was in excess of 98 percent, according to researchers who conducted unannounced walk-through audits of all 77 California stores studied.

OSHA inspections continue to decline Federal compliance officers conducted their lowest number of inspections ever -- 23,597 -- in fiscal year 1996 (ending September 30, 1996), down 18.4 percent from 29,113 in 1995. Serious violations dropped 40.2 percent, from 54,295 to 32,450. These numbers could be revised slightly upward when OSHA releases its final totals in early November, according to an agency spokeswoman.

The number of significant (proposed penalties more than $100,000) and egregious cases climbed from 125 to 165 as the agency attempted to balance its cooperative "reinvented" approach with the message that "OSHA also must continue to be the cop on the beat," according to Labor Secretary Robert Reich.

OSHA Chief Joseph A. Dear announced his selections to fill three national office positions. The candidates, John F. Martonik, Steven F. Witt, and Bonnie A. Friedman, are all longtime OSHA employees. Martonik will move up to Director of Safety Standards from 15 years as deputy director of health standards at OSHA. Witt has been with OSHA since 1987 as a special assistant to the assistant secretary of labor and will take over as director of technical support. Friedman has been with the Labor Department for 20 years in various positions. She will become director of the Office of Information and Consumer Affairs.

An OSHA/NIOSH ergonomics conference scheduled for Jan. 8-9, 1997, will cover topics specific to particular industries where ergonomic injury rates are high -- including apparel, health care, and data entry. The conference, slated to be held at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel and Towers will also host discussion on a NIOSH primer on musculoskeletal disorders. Business, academia, labor, and government will share methods for combating work-related musculoskeletal disorders, the nation's most costly category of workplace injuries and illnesses. For updates and information on the conference, visit NIOSH's World Wide Web site at