Later this month there should be fireworks in Cincinnati when business and labor groups, academic experts, and NIOSH officials meet to debate the science and policy issues of "Managing Ergonomics in the 1990s," a conference sponsored by the Center for Office Technology and the American Automobile Manufacturers Association.

"Hopefully the meeting will open people’s eyes to the different opinions," says David Sarvardi, an attorney with the Washington, D.C., law firm Keller and Heckman.

That might not be necessary. OSHA’s travails with ergonomics rulemaking have been well-documented. Most recently Republican Congressman Henry Bonilla of Texas declared that ergonomics standards-setting should be deferred until conflicting opinions about repetitive strain cause and effect can be sorted out by a neutral body such as the National Academy of Sciences. Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO has launched a national "Stop the Pain" campaign urging Congress to support OSHA’s work on a standard. Stretching back to the beginning of this decade, the tortured history of OSHA and ergonomics is a case study in why safety and health professionals are seeing very little regulatory activity these days. Says one veteran safety consultant: "The Washington scene is dead right now. There’s no sense of urgency; nothing is happening."

Case in point: Agency chief Joe Dear resigned last December 20, and at press time his replacement still had not been named. Several OSHA-watchers say acting administrator Greg Watchman may remain through most of the summer.

OSHA seems to have been swept up in a malaise that has settled over the nation’s capital in general. Political leaders of both parties are on the defensive, fighting accusations of scandal and licking wounds after rough partisan battles. Democrats lost confidence after the health care debacle. Republicans retreated after getting blamed for the government shutdowns during the budget impasse.

Both sides seem weary and wary of OSHA issues, too. Democrats failed to strengthen OSHA’s powers with reform legislation in 1994. Republicans saw their own reform ideas repulsed in 1995 and 1996. Agency officials, after alternately arguing for (Democratic) and against (Republican) legislation on many trips to Capitol Hill, are worn out as well. Of course, that’s not how OSHA officials see it. "We have a full agenda," says spokesman Stephen Gaskill. "The work of the agency is going on. We are in a transitional mode (between OSHA administrators) so we can’t really take on high-profile issues."

Little progress: Throughout the 1990s no OSHA issue has been more visible than ergonomics. And the agency is probably no closer to issuing a standard today than it was in 1990, when then-Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole announced that work on a rule would begin in response to statistics showing repetitive strain injuries to be the fastest growing category of occupational illnesses. Gaskill recently told ISHN that "we’re probably a couple of years away from having a proposal that we could shop around."

For now, the emphasis is on education and research, basically building a case for a standard by showing problems exist -- and so do solutions. A "best practices" summit was jointly sponsored by OSHA and NIOSH in Chicago in January. OSHA will roll out regional ergonomics conferences later this year, and NIOSH will soon release a peer-reviewed study of existing research into what causes repetitive strain disorders.

Washington insiders dismiss this as tinkering "at the margins," in the words of one. "You can use advisory committees to research something for the next two years and then you’re out of office and it’s somebody else’s problem," says another.

Easing off

There are several reasons OSHA must follow this deliberate approach: ·
  • Its first attempt to write a standard, which never reached official proposal status, was lambasted for the same flaws -- an overly-complex plan hatched by know-it-all experts -- that helped kill Clinton’s grand designs for health care reform. ·
  • As Gaskill mentioned, there’s no captain at the helm to steer the agency through very choppy waters. ·
  • Since Robert Reich resigned as labor secretary, no one with White House clout is talking up ergonomics. ·
  • Safety and health professional groups are not clamoring for a standard; many pros have no faith in the government devising practical answers. ·
  • Try as unions might, there’s no public outrage over repetitive strain injuries. ·
  • The strongest outrage is expressed by small businesses, other industry groups, and their allies in Congress over the cost of controls. ·
  • How to best pinpoint workplace causes of repetitive strain disorders and feasibly correct them is still an open question.

This was demonstrated recently when the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission struck down 175 alleged willful violations for repetitive strain hazards against a Pepperidge Farm cookie plant. The commission said OSHA could not prove the feasibility of abatement methods.

These factors in a more general sense stifle safety and health initiatives today across the board. Here’s how:

1. Safety and health pros since OSHA’s inception have complained that regulators are out of touch with real-world problems and solutions. "OSHA and NIOSH are not the least bit open-minded," says one business lobbyist. This perception of arrogance continues to bedevil the agencies despite their attempts in recent years to reinvent themselves. "We are listening. We have a new mind-set," says Gaskill.

"There’s a difference between an open door and an open mind," says the lobbyist. "The door is definitely open, but I don’t think they’ve heard anything."

This Washington-knows-best attitude has turned off many safety and health pros over the years, making them lukewarm supporters of standards-setting activity. Also, many professionals don’t see the need for rules or heavy enforcement because their own facilities have better-than-average safety programs. Meanwhile, workplaces that could benefit from federal intervention very often don’t want it.

2. Leadership problems have always plagued OSHA. First there’s the stop-and-go management issue. Nine administrators have run the agency since 1971, each serving an average of two years and five months. That’s not much time to learn the ropes, staff up, and garner political support for an agenda. Temporary administrators like Watchman have been in place almost 20 percent of the time -- a total of four years and four months out of 26 years.

Then there’s the matter of leadership style. The Clinton administration clearly does not want to rock the boat, says a union safety official. Another labor safety leader says Joe Dear tried too hard to please everyone. "He realized much too late people aren’t interested in consensus. In Washington business and labor both want control."

3. OSHA always moves most decisively after a catastrophe when the public demands protection. Now there is no widely-perceived threat, and as one safety consultant says, "The safety movement mobilizes when it has an enemy."

To a degree, OSHA is a victim of its own success. Obvious threats such as asbestos, lead, cotton dust, and vinyl chloride have been eliminated or lessened by standards. Issues remaining, like ergonomics and indoor air quality, are more complex and cannot be remedied by lowering exposure limits.

Given these constraints, no one who follows OSHA expects dramatic action in the next several years, unless a disaster strikes industry. "There are limits to what can be done politically," says Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s director of safety and health. That’s why Dear’s replacement is a critical decision, she explains. "Someone with credibility and respect is so important to break out of the morass we’re in. Without leadership we’ll be stuck where we are."