Congress Votes to Repeal Ergonomics Standard

March 7, 2001 Largely along party lines, Congress has voted to repeal ergonomics standards to protect workers from repetitive stress injuries, such as carpel tunnel syndrome. The House voted Wednesday night 223-206 to repeal the rule, with 206 Republicans voting for the "resolution of disapproval" and 191 Democrats against it; 13 Republicans and 16 Democrats crossed party lines. Click here for a complete list of how members voted. The debate in the House was limited to 60 minutes, infuriating Democrats. Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO) expressed anger that this important issue was getting so little floor time, especially when there are no other compelling issues being debated in the House. He noted with great passion that this action by Republicans was a direct slap at bipartanship. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) drove the point home by noting that there were no hearings on the resolution and no serious discussion about throwing the ergonomics rule out. And Rep. David Obey (D-WI) said, "If there are any illusions in this Congress about the leadership's commitment to bipartisanship, this is exhibit number one that it's a fiction." (Ironically, the House's bipartisan retreat is scheduled for this weekend. And tomorrow the House is voting on the president's tax bill, another partisan issue. Should be an interesting weekend.) The House vote followed the Senate's action late Tuesday night, with 56 voting for repeal and 44 opposed. No Senate Republicans voted against the "resolution of disapproval" and six Democrats voted for it -- Sens. Max Baucus (MT), John Breaux (LA), Ernest Hollings (SC), Mary Landrieu (LA), Blanche Lincoln (AR), and Zell Miller (GA). There was 10 hours of debate in the Senate. In making the case against the ergonomics standard, the mostly Republican opponents began by stating their commitment to worker health and safety. Instead, they said it was the particulars of the rule they objected to, not an ergonomics rule per se. This argument, however, seems highly suspect given the history of the ergonomics standard. During the 10 years since then-Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole initiated the ergonomics rulemaking, business interests and most congressional Republicans have continuously questioned the need for any ergonomics standard -- despite numerous studies that have demonstrated its urgency. In July of 1997, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) concluded a review of more than 600 studies which found that musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) caused by ergonomic hazards are a serious and widespread problem. Then in October of 1998, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued a report -- conducted at the request of Reps. Henry Bonilla (R-TX) and Bob Livingston (R-LA) -- supporting NIOSH's findings. Still not satisfied -- and still questioning whether a problem even exists -- congressional Republicans pushed appropriations of $ 890,000 for NAS to conduct a second study. That study, completed in January of 2001, again pointed to repetitive motion injuries as a serious problem in the workplace. "There is no doubt that musculoskeletal disorders of the low back and upper extremities are an important and costly national health problem....," the report concluded. "In 1999, nearly 1 million people took time away from work to treat and recover from work-related musculoskeletal pain or impairment of function in the low back or upper extremities. Conservative estimates of the economic burden imposed, as measured by compensation costs, lost wages and lost productivity, are between $ 45 [billion] and $ 54 billion annually." Given the mounting evidence that a standard is needed, congressional Republicans attempted to shift focus to the specifics of the rule itself during floor debate. In one of the often repeated refrains, they claimed that the rule was more than 600 pages -- so complex that no business person could ever understand. In fact, the text of the rule is a mere nine pages. The 600 plus pages published in the Federal Register included vast supporting evidence for the rule -- the same evidence the opponents themselves requested. At one point during debate, Sen. Michael Enzi (R-WY) seemed to point to a California ergonomics standard as a model for the federal government, which he said was only one page long. But Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) pointed out that business interests had opposed that standard too. In fact, it seems likely that the business lobby will oppose any ergonomics standard, no matter the specifics. In a statement of administration policy, Bush's Secretary of Labor, Elaine Chao, indicated that the administration supports repeal of the ergonomics standard, but that it will seek to approve a new standard, more friendly to business. Whether this happens remains to be seen. This work requires initiating a whole new rulemaking, which could take years to complete. Moreover, business interests and their allies in Congress are likely to continue to oppose ANY standard. Given this reality, don't count on ergonomics protections any time soon, even if the costs of waiting are very high, with more than 600,000 serious ergonomic injuries every year. For more information on ergonomics, see the AFL-CIO's web site. Peg Seminario, director of the AFL-CIO's department of Occupational Safety and Health, appeared on National Public Radio to debate the ergonomics standard. Click here to listen to that broadcast.
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