When the Occupational Safety & Health Administration passed new workplace ergonomics rules during the closing days of the Clinton administration, it set off an uproar in the business community. Then, almost as suddenly, Congress and President Bush repealed those rules in a marathon three-day process that began on March 6.
Now, even though the battle was over almost as soon as it started, the controversy lingers. In Oklahoma, business leaders are praising the repeal as a victory against an overreaching regulatory system, while organized labor believes the repeal represents a defeat for low-wage workers suffering from serious injuries.
"We are passing a lot more rules and regulations that impact the citizens of this country and the businesses of this country through rulemaking than we're ever doing through the legislative process," said Mike Seney, vice president of The State Chamber. "And that's dangerous. When we create an agency and give them carte blanche to pass any rule or regulation that they want to and don't have a check to stop them from getting excessive, we basically have abdicated our democracy to a bunch of bureaucrats."
Seney said the repeal of the OSHA regulations under the provisions of the Congressional Review Act is a shot across the bow, warning regulators that there is now a checks-and-balances system in place to prevent regulatory excess.
Organized labor officials, predictably, see things differently.
"We find more and more that politicians seem to think that the people that drive the truck or the people that work in the warehouse or the people that sweep the floor or the guy who gets up at 4 a.m. and turns the lights on for the executives -- the people who do all the things that are necessary -- are more of a throw-away item to the wealthy and to some politicians," said Terry Raulston, president and business manager of Teamsters Local Union 886.
While the OSHA regulations dominated headlines for only a handful of days at the beginning of March, the ergonomics rulemaking process was ongoing for nearly a decade. Union officials argue that business leaders had the chance to influence the regulations on numerous occasions, but chose instead to strong-arm labor groups through the legislative process.
But Kathy Teel, president of The Compliance Company, a business consulting firm, said business leaders let their guard down during the rulemaking process.
"The business community, kind of thinking -- well, this is so vague, they'll never pin it down, they'll never be able to promulgate good regulations -- had sort of let the unions all lobby about that and not taken it very seriously," she said. "And then all of a sudden now, here we have finalized standards on Jan. 16. And that woke everybody up."
The ergonomics rules addressed musculoskeletal injuries, a broad category often caused by repetitive motion that gradually injure a worker.
From one point of view, business leaders were correct: OSHA was not able to provide a precise definition of a musculoskeletal injury. But the agency attempted to address the issue anyway. The definition the agency eventually developed "was so vague" that it included "everything that might go wrong with an employee," Teel said. That led employers to believe their paperwork burden would skyrocket under the new federal program.
In addition, while the standard addressed only work-related musculoskeletal disorders, the OSHA regulations prevented an employer from communicating with an employee's physician to find out if an injury was truly work-related. Teel said that provision was an "open door" for abuse.
Most importantly for business owners, the regulation required that employers pay up to 90 percent of the employee's pay and benefits for up to 90 days if the employee had to be off work. That regulation appeared to override the provisions …