"Later this fall." That was the vague deadline set by OSHA regarding its long-awaited plan of action on ergonomics in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11. Department of Labor and OSHA personnel were preoccupied in rescue and recovery efforts in the weeks following, pushing ergonomics to the back burner.

What happens now? Anything but another stab at a federal standard, according to Washington sources contacted by Industrial Safety & Hygiene News.

"I'd be floored if they said they were coming out with a standard and deadlines," said one OSHA watcher.

"You're not going to see any rules and regulations coming out of OSHA in the next three years," said a safety association government affairs expert.

Despite anti-reg Republicans now running OSHA, there has been some waffling within the White House and the Department of Labor over the political value of pursuing a standard to address the worst ergo problems, according to one source.

But most bets are on OSHA issuing "best practices" guidelines similar to a voluntary guide drafted specifically for the meatpacking industry years ago. Industry, especially large "Fortune 100" corporations, will be expected to partner with OSHA and show how ergo programs have bottom-line benefits in addition to protecting employees. And the agency will probably shake its enforcement stick and threaten inspections and penalties for companies that completely ignore ergo problems.