The Ergonomics Debate Shifts Gears

Article excerpt

A few days after the White House approved legislation nullifying OSHA's ergonomics program standard, a bipartisan coalition of senators proposed legislation that mandates Labor Department action on the problem of ergonomic injuries in the workplace. Risk managers find themselves once again confronting the possibility of federal regulation. The real test is whether the legislation and resulting regulations can fully address the concerns of employers--including cost issues and federal interference with state workers' compensation laws.

Senators John Breaux (D-LA) and Mien Specter (R-PA) introduced legislation on March 22, 2001 that requires the Labor Department to adopt ergonomic rules within two years. Under the proposed bill, S. 598, no federal ergonomics standard could exceed state workers' compensation laws, nor could it apply to any injuries sustained outside of work or exacerbated by work duties. The new rules would also clarify the workplace circumstances that would require the use of an ergonomics program and employer compliance standards.

Original cosponsors of the legislation include Max Cleland (D-GA), Tim Johnson (D-SD), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), Zell Miller (D-GA), Ben Nelson (D-NE) and Ted Stevens (R-AK). Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, along with labor interests and representatives from the business community, has testified on the ergonomics issue and has suggested that she is open to any of a number of possible solutions to the problem of ergonomics-related injuries in the workplace--including issuing new regulations or simply enforcing the current OSHA statute. However, if S. 598 were to become law, its broad mandate to the Labor Department makes clear that Chao would make the ultimate determination on the content of any future ergonomics rules.

In response to a RIMS letter to Chao, Steven Law, Chao's chief of staff, replied, "the Secretary has stated her intent to pursue a comprehensive approach to ergonomics, which could include a new rulemaking that addresses concerns levied against the recently reversed standard."

This new legislation is the latest development in a swirling cycle of events surrounding the ergonomics issue. By publishing rules last November, OSHA assured that they would become effective sixty days later, just before President Clinton left office. …