Up against vehement opposition from business
groups and a ticking election-year clock, the Clinton
administration is pressing forward with a proposal for broad new
worker protections against repetitive motion injuries.
"We could tell from the 7,000 comments that we got that people
have strong feelings about this," Assistant Labor Secretary
Charles Jeffress said Monday. Nevertheless, he said, "We're on a
schedule to have a final rule adopted by the end of this year. That
remains our current goal."
Corporate lawyers turned out in force Monday, as the
administration began nine weeks of public hearings, to grill
officials from the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and
Health Administration, which Jeffress heads. The earlier comments
came in a period set aside for write-in observations.
A lobbying coalition including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the
National Association of Manufacturers and hundreds of other
business groups and corporations is demanding that the
administration scrap the proposal. It is not based on sound
science, the coalition says, and its costs are grossly
"You're asking businesses to spend billions of dollars while
failing to ensure the prevention of these injuries," the coalition
spokesman, Al Lundeen, said.
Republicans in Congress have pushed for delays and won a 30-day
extension of the public comment period. But the administration,
hedging its bets against the possibility of a GOP takeover of the
White House, is determined to complete the rules during President
Clinton's last months in office.
Jeffress offered assurances Monday that the administration will
listen to all suggestions about how to improve the rules before
The proposed regulations, rolled out in November after years of
holdups imposed by Congress for scientific research and other
scrutiny, would require employers to minimize everyday physical
or ergonomic stresses of certain jobs.
OSHA officials laid out their case in opening testimony Monday,
saying each year 1.8 million workers have musculoskeletal injuries
related to ergonomic working conditions, and 600,000 people miss
work because of them.
Injuries to muscles, nerves, ligaments and tendons include such
problems as carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain and tendinitis.
Marthe Kent, head of OSHA's regulatory programs, said the agency
has devoted a decade of study to the problems and has observed that
in the meantime, some companies have come up with effective
solutions on their own.
"The science base is strong, the risk is significant and
feasible means of reducing that risk are widely available and
understood. The time to act is now," Kent said.
The new rules would cover a broad range of workers from nurses
to baggage handlers at airports and people who work at computers or
on assembly lines.
Labor unions, also represented at Monday's session, want even
stronger protections for example, penalties against companies
that intimidate workers from reporting ergonomic injuries.
OSHA estimates businesses would spend $4.2 billion a year to
comply but predicts net savings of $9 billion in medical costs and
Businesses claim the government is far underestimating the cost.
The corporate-financed Employment Policy Foundation pegs the price
of worker education, reconfiguration of workspaces and workers'
compensation at $80 billion annually.
Companies also say the rules are overly broad, requiring them to
address individual physical problems that may be the result of
factors other than working conditions, such as a person's overall
health or activities at home.
At Monday's hearing, Baruch Fellner, a lawyer for UPS and
Anheuser-Busch, read aloud from a section of the regulations
recommending employee characteristics that companies should
consider, such as whether a worker is tall or short, has small
hands or wears bifocal glasses.
"Could you give us some other examples? How about the slowest,
least-coordinated employees?" asked Fellner.
Ergonomics hearings are scheduled to move to Chicago on April
11, then to Portland, Ore., on April 24 before a wrap-up back in
the nation's capital May 8-12.