The Oregonian
March 20, 1995

By Frank Swoboda - LA Times - Washington Post Service


Still, House Republican leaders are irate that the workplace-safety agency is proceeding on repetitive motion injuries

The Labor Department on Monday will propose rules dealing with workplace repetitive motion injuries. The action comes days after the House voted to cut the department's budget for refusing to honor Republican calls for a moratorium on new federal safety regulations.

The new ergonomics regulations proposed by the department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration are dramatically weaker than those drafted in June, before the Republicans took control of both houses of Congress.

Under intense political pressure, the Labor Department's proposed rules would now cover 2.6 million businesses instead of 6.1 million. The number of employees covered by the rules would drop to 21 million from 96 million.

Under the new rules, companies would no longer be required to review worker compensation and OSHA records to identify possible patterns that might indicate jobs that cause ergonomic-related injuries. Employers also would not be required to evaluate programs they develop to deal with ergonomic problems.

Repetitive motion injuries, once a chronic problem for meat cutters, supermarket checkout clerks and assembly-line workers whose jobs require that a motion be repeated again and again, have spread to writers, secretaries and other computer keyboard users.

Work-related disorders such as back strain and carpal tunnel syndrome account for 60 percent of all new occupational illnesses, government figures show. The annual cost to businesses in worker compensation claims and lost time has been estimated at $100 billion.

The heart of the agency's proposal remains unchanged when it comes to identifying five risk factors that might present a workplace ergonomic hazard:

* Performance of the same motion or motion pattern for a specified period of time.

* Use of vibrating or impact tools.

* Using forceful hand exertions over a set period of time.

* Unassisted frequent or heavy lifting.

* Fixed or awkward postures for more than a certain number of hours.

"The proposal's a lot narrower," said Joe Dear, the assistant secretary of labor in charge of OSHA. Dear predicted there would be more refinements before a consultation process was over. He would not predict a date for the agency to issue a final proposal.

The new regulations will be presented for comment at meetings with employers in Milwaukee and St. Paul, the first in a series of scheduled consultations with employers and lobbying groups.

After OSHA finishes the consulting phase, it must get approval from the Office of Management and Budget for any final proposal it wants to issue and then put that proposal out for public comment. If past regulatory efforts are any indication, the process could take several years even without any congressional intervention.

Even so, the fact that OSHA is going ahead has raised the ire of House Republican leaders.

House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, succeeded last week in cutting an additional $3.5 million from OSHA's fiscal 1995 budget. His cutback comes on top of $16 million in reductions to the agency's fiscal 1995 budget as part of a $17 billion cutback in the current federal budget. DeLay said the extra cut was needed to punish the agency for "flouting the will of this Congress."

DeLay, who is leading a Republican effort against regulations, said the cut was designed "to force OSHA to cease its activities on the promulgation of an ergonomic standard that is paternalistic in concept and a menace in its implementation." The amendment was approved by a 254-168 vote.

Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C., chairman of a key labor subcommittee, said during debate that "no one ever died of ergonomics."

Dear said he was "surprised and confused" by the additional budget cut last week. But, he said, "the game's not up yet," noting that the cuts still had to be approved by the Senate and that President Clinton has promised to veto the overall budget recision package if it arrives on his desk in its current form.

Peg Seminario, director of health and safety for the AFL-CIO, called the House budget cuts "a very big hit" for OSHA. She challenged DeLay's position that OSHA was violating the moratorium ban. "The last time I looked, the president hadn't signed it into law."