Group Targets Right to Work, OSHA Ergonomic Rules

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Despite declaring that the group is "not a single-issue organization," officials with the State Chamber said their main legislative priority in 2001 would be passage of a right-to-work law, an issue that's been synonymous with the Chamber for at least 14 years.

But the issue receiving the most attention from officials at the Tuesday luncheon outlining the group's legislative agenda was a new item: opposition to federal ergonomics rules issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration during the closing weeks of 2000.

The ergonomics rules address musculoskeletal disorders -- injuries caused by repetitive motions or stress. If an employee reports a musculoskeletal disorder or a "sign or symptom" to his or her employer, the employer is then obliged under the new OSHA rules to take several steps culminating in the payment of compensations to the worker under federal, rather than state, standards. The employer must refer the employee to a "health care professional" and if the health care professional recommends that the employee be removed from work, the employer must follow that recommendation. The employer must then immediately begin paying compensation at the rate of 90 percent of the worker's earnings. The regulations will apply to nearly all employers in Oklahoma, except for those involved in construction, maritime and agriculture, according to chamber officials.

The regulations went into effect last week, although OSHA officials have said enforcement would not begin until October.

Mike Seney, vice president of the State Chamber, said the rule tramples state's rights and could wreak havoc with the financial stability of small businesses. He said that assertion is based on estimates that the rules could cost Oklahoma employers more than $1 billion each year -- an expense "that, to the best of our ability to determine, is not covered by any insurance policy," Seney said.

"That is a scary statement," he said.

Seney said existing workers compensation policies would not cover the costs associated with the implementation of the new ergonomics rules and the premiums for any new policy developed by insurance companies would probably involve "very large" premiums.

"It is going to be a backbreaker," Seney said. "It is the most expensive piece of regulation that I have ever seen."

The ergonomics regulations also appear to contradict other OSHA rules, Seney said. Section 4(b)(4) of the OSHA Act specifically prohibits OSHA from promulgating any rule that would "supercede" or "in any manner affect" state workers compensation laws. And when the act passed in 1970, Seney said, "Congress made clear that, while OSHA had broad authority to promulgate standards governing the prevention of workplace injury, it had no authority to regulate compensation for such injuries."

Seney said the ergonomics rule "stomps all over a state's workers compensation law." However, overturning the rule may not be easy.

"It cannot be repealed by a simple stroke of the pen by new President Bush, because it was not created by a presidential order," Seney said. "It was passed by regulation, after Congress adjourned."

As a result, the State Chamber is supporting the efforts of the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Coalitions on Ergonomics to block the implementation of the new ergonomics rules in court. And Seney said the Chamber may urge Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson to file suit saying the OSHA rule violates states' rights provisions in the U. …