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WASHINGTON-A proposal by Labor Secretary Alexis Herman to appoint a special liaison to employers is drawing cautious praise from the business community.
Employers welcome the proposal as a demonstration that Ms. Herman favors a cooperative rather than confrontational approach in dealings between the department and employers. In particular, some business group hope the liaison will give them an opportunity to voice their concerns about a proposal by the department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration to require employers to adopt a controversial ergonomics standard.
Businesses considered OSHA's original ergonomics draft unrealistic and inflexible. Employers also hold that more research must be undertaken before the imposition of an ergonomics standards can be justified, if it can be justified at all. The House Committee on Education and the Workforce's Workforce Protection Subcommittee began holding hearings on ergonomics last week.
Ms. Herman announced her plan for the liaison during her first appearance before a congressional panel as labor secretary earlier this month. As she fielded questions from members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, Ms. Herman said she intends "to have someone available to relate to the business community" on specific issues, most notably employer questions involving the proposed ergonomics standard.
Details of the liaison position have yet to be worked out and there is no formal timetable for creating the position, though the Labor Department expects the slot to be filled "sooner rather than later," a department spokesman said.
The person who fills the liaison post can expect to hear quite a number of concerns from employers.
"The risk management community is always interested in partnership with OSHA to develop a positive government and business relationship," said Lance Ewing, chairman of the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc.'s health and safety committee and loss control administrator for the Philadelphia School District.
RIMS would welcome the opportunity to discuss a variety of workplace safety regulation issues, he added. These include the promulgation of any ergonomics standards; making sure that employers that conduct safety audits to improve workplace safety do not have the results of those audits used against them; concerns about meeting the demands of different state-run workplace safety plans; the creation of voluntary protection programs; and efforts to deal with workplace violence.
But the idea of creating a formal liaison to the business community is not new, pointed out Mr. Ewing.
"Joe Dear had talked about this a couple of years ago," said Mr. Ewing, referring to the former OSHA administrator, who won favorable reviews from many employers for his willingness to listen to their concerns.
Mr. Ewing further noted that RIMS will respond to any OSHA reform bills that appear to have any chance of passage in the current Congress.
"Ergonomics has been a major area of concentration for the health and safety committee for the past year. It's one of the areas that we are working on, partnering with the American Society of Safety Engineers. We're heartened that it appears to be one of the first agenda items for the proposed liaison," said Karen Fleming, vp-health and safety for RIMS and manager-risk management for Bell Atlantic Corp. in Arlington, Va.
"I think it would be good if we could get someone there who really understands business concerns and has the authority to follow the issues and a has a voice in the decision-making process. If the objective is to open up dialogue among business, labor and government, that's certainly progress," said John Lobert, senior vp-government relations for the National Assn. of Independent Insurers in Washington.
"We would like to have more scientific research before OSHA goes forward with the ergonomics standard," said J. Eldred Hill, legislative analyst for Washington-based UBA Inc., which analyzes workers compensation and unemployment benefit issues.
Mr. Hill said that the ergonomics standard is but one proposed federal initiative that "appears to be infringing on the workers comp area. They're not only saying what you should do to protect workers but also what you should do after an accident."
"Most importantly, we would like the business liaison to support Rep. Bonilla's appropriations rider to the Labor/HHS appropriations bill to require the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a thorough study on ergonomics before any regulation is proposed," said Mary Reed, manager-legislative affairs for the Washington-based National Federation of Independent Business. She referred to a plan by Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, to force an independent study of the ergonomics question.
"It appears as a hopeful sign that the Labor Department is desirous of a good relationship with the business community, but it's too early to tell," she said.
"The NFIB's concern would be that they're not trying to make a poisonous pill taste better, because the original ergonomics draft was not something that the NFIB could support in any form. And we expect that the new ergonomics proposal will use the same risk factors that were used in the original draft," Ms. Reed said.