Now the nation knows what safety and health pros have known for years — OSHA’s plans for an ergonomics rule is a white-hot controversy, divisive enough to send Congress home for a cooling-off period after Democrats and Republicans failed to reach a compromise that would allow the agency to publish final requirements.

Seldom does a job safety issue take center stage in Washington like the ergo rule did just days before the national election. Congress’s failure to compromise on ergo standards-setting killed a tentative accord on a $144-billion funding bill for health, education and labor. Early Monday morning (Oct. 30), negotiators for Democrats and Republicans added a “rider” to the budget bill that prohibited OSHA from enforcing an ergo standard until June 1, 2001 — but the wording did not explicitly restrict OSHA from issuing the standard.

House Republican leaders canceled the compromise later on Monday, saying it did not give the next administration the authority to decide whether to move ahead with a rule. President Clinton vowed to veto the bill if it contained any language preventing OSHA from issuing its long-awaited standard. The stalemate had both sides accusing the other of currying to special interest groups in an election-eve frenzy, and Clinton used the ergo issue to attack Republicans while he campaigned for Vice President Al Gore.

Now Congress is heading home for the elections and a cooling off period, with work on the budget tentatively set to resume Nov. 14. The outcome of the close White House race will have a lot to say about how Congress settles the ergo dispute.