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WASHINGTON-Business and insurance groups are applauding a congressional attempt to block the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from issuing any ergonomics standard for at least another year.
But the bipartisan compromise, hammered out by Reps. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, and David Obey, D-Wis., would not circumscribe OSHA's ergonomics-related activities as sharply as previous legislation.
For example, the OSHA appropriations amendment approved last week by the House Appropriations Committee states specifically that it does not limit OSHA "from issuing voluntary guidelines on ergonomic protection or from developing a proposed standard regarding ergonomic protection," a prohibition in effect throughout much of the last Congress.
The new approach, which won the approval of the Senate Appropriations Committee last week, also would not require that the National Academy of Sciences issue an ergonomics study before OSHA may impose a standard.
The one-year ban on issuing an ergonomics standard may have more of a symbolic than practical impact in many cases.
A spokesman for OSHA said that prohibition on issuing a standard before next fall should not have any great effect on the agency's ergonomics activities, because OSHA expects to spend at least another year dealing with the issue before any standard can be issued.
"It continues where we're heading. We've just begun the standards writing process, with the arrival of David Cochran."
Mr. Cochran, an ergonomics specialist from the University of Nebraska, is heading up OSHA's standards writing team, said the spokesman.
"It's sort of a relief to know that we don't have another rider hanging over our head," added the spokesman, referring to the attachments to previous appropriations bills that subjected OSHA's ergonomics activities to greater restrictions.
Another provision, however, could have some practical impact, because while the compromise does not ban OSHA from issuing voluntary ergonomics guidelines, it specifically bars the agency from issuing citations to employers that violate them.
Businesses have long contended that more research needs to be undertaken before OSHA even can consider imposing an ergonomics safety standard. A recent review of ergonomics studies by the Department of Health and Human Services' National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health concluded there was indeed a link between workplace conditions and certain repetitive stress injuries and ailments (BI, July 7). Although organized labor cheered the survey, many business groups expressed skepticism over its findings and urged that the NAS conduct its own study.
Despite the lack of an NAS requirement in the bill, business groups hailed the ergonomics compromise as the best possible solution to the issue for the time being, particularly given that House and Senate leaders have repeatedly emphasized that this year's appropriations bills be free of any extraneous matters.
"I think it's a common-sense approach to the ergonomics issue. Let's give all sides an opportunity to evaluate the findings NIOSH came up with and pretty much allow whatever companies that are out there to evaluate their own programs. Companies are being given warnings from both labor and OSHA that they're not going to let ergonomics issues wither on the vine. I think company risk managers should make ergonomics one of their priorities during the coming year," said Lance Ewing, chairman of the New York-based Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc.'s health and safety committee and loss control administrator for the Philadelphia School District.
Mr. Ewing further noted that the health and safety committee is working on an ergonomics project by looking for success stories from RIMS' members so they can share their solutions with fellow risk managers. He said the committee hopes to have something in print in time for RIMS' annual conference next spring.
"This is the best we could have possibly gotten, because there is such an emphasis on keeping the appropriations bills clean. So it was extremely difficult given that labor is strongly opposing the language that we wanted. We got half of what we wanted, but it's amazing we got anything at all," said Margaret Menge, associate director-employment policy for the National Assn. of Manufacturers in Washington.
"We're delighted, but this doesn't let OSHA off the hook, and the NAM will still emphasize that before OSHA goes forward with any ergonomic standards, they need to start with the facts. We're not walking away from the NAS study; we're still going to push for an NAS study," she added.
The Alliance of American Insurers would welcome "any unbiased study," said Tamera R. Velasquez, lobbyist and public affairs counsel in the insurer trade group's Washington office.
"It was welcome action by the Senate and House to include the ergonomics language in the appropriations bill. Right now there are too many unanswered questions about ergonomics to justify strapping businesses with a burdensome, costly regulation. The action stops OSHA from moving forward prematurely with ergonomics regulations. We hope OSHA takes this year to thoroughly review the science before it pushes an ergonomics regulation," she said.
In a related matter, NAM testified before the House Education and the Workforce Committee's Subcommittee on Workforce Protections that OSHA's efforts to "reinvent" itself have not gone far enough.
Speaking for NAM, Richard D. Schaible, director-global safety for Harrisburg, Pa.-based AMP Inc., said, "We have not seen any meaningful progress toward reinvention. OSHA continues to
pursue promulgation of standards that would amount to superregulation of the workplace, resisting calls for peer review and independent studies."