Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Ergonomics, OSHA Rulemaking Haunt 2004 Election: What's at Stake in the Upcoming Election for Partisans of Occupational Safety? Labor and Industry Representatives Are So at Odds, Many Don't Even Agree on How Divided They Are

Magazine article Occupational Hazards

Ergonomics, OSHA Rulemaking Haunt 2004 Election: What's at Stake in the Upcoming Election for Partisans of Occupational Safety? Labor and Industry Representatives Are So at Odds, Many Don't Even Agree on How Divided They Are

Article excerpt

If you want to understand why the workplace safety community is so polarized as the nation prepares to choose a president and a new Congress, OSHA's rulemaking record under President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry's support for a new ergonomics standard are the best places to start.

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More surprising, however, is that stakeholders differ on how important the 2004 national elections will be for workplace health and safety. While labor representatives use almost apocalyptic language when speaking about what a Republican victory will mean for their issues, the industry people we spoke with doubt much will change no matter who wins the race for the White House.

It's Still About Ergonomics

Ergonomics was, is and promises to be the single most decisive issue in the politics of occupational safety.

Three years ago, Sen. John Kerry voted against repealing the ergonomics standard ultimately quashed by President Bush. Although it is not exactly the centerpiece of his campaign, according to Kerry's Web site he still "strongly supports implementation of a mandatory ergonomics standard."

Nullification of the Clinton administration's ergonomics standard early in 2001 was one of the first acts of the Republican Congress and the newly elected President Bush. The demise of this standard in particular, as well as OSHA's failure to issue any other major rules, delighted many in the business community, embittered organized labor, and further polarized an already deeply divided workplace health and safety community. Worker advocates also say the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has bowed to industry pressure and stepped away from rulemaking.

"There are three OSHA program areas: regulation, enforcement and the softer stuff like compliance assistance and voluntary programs," explains Pat Tyson, a former OSHA official who now works as a management attorney in Atlanta at the Constangy, Brooks & Smith law firm. "If Bush is reelected, we will probably continue the same course, consultation first, enforcement a pretty close second, standards at the bottom. My guess is that if Kerry wins, these priorities will be reversed."

Peg Seminario, director of the AFLCIO's Department of Occupational Safety and Health, while conceding it would be difficult, put ergonomics at the top of her rulemaking wish list if Kerry wins the election. In addition, she believed there would be an attempt to address:

* Reactive chemicals;

* Permissible exposure limits (PELs);

* Silica;

* Hexavalent chromium;

* Safety and health programs.

But it is far from certain Kerry could deliver on an aggressive new regulatory agenda. There are always significant legal and political barriers to issuing new standards, and a new ergonomics rule would face even more formidable obstacles. In addition to fierce industry opposition, OSHA would have to produce an entirely new standard. The Congressional Review Act, which Congress used to nullify the old standard, forbids OSHA from reissuing a regulation that is "substantially the same" as the one Congress rejected.

One Trick Pony?

"Unfortunately, I can't think of any," is what Seminario says when asked to name OSHA's accomplishments during the past 4 years. "This is the only administration since the beginning of OSHA that has failed to issue a single major safety and health rule."

OSHA Administrator John Henshaw, conceding the difficulty of issuing new standards, chose instead to focus on the kinds of voluntary efforts long favored by industry: alliances, partnerships and compliance assistance.

Randall Johnson, vice president of labor, immigration and employee benefits for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (USCC), defended Henshaw's controversial decision to remove many rule-making initiatives from the agency's regulatory agency.

"All John was doing was just trying to get some things done, rather than have a whole lot of projects and get nothing done," Johnson explained. …

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