Bush Administration Ergonomics Hearings Begin
The Bush administration yesterday held the first of three scheduled hearings on ergonomics, with the "same old battle lines drawn" between business groups opposed to regulation and labor unions that back "forceful government action," Gannett News Service/Arizona Republic reports (Tumulty, Gannett News Service/Arizona Republic, 7/17). Although former President Clinton issued an ergonomics rule in January, Congress repealed the regulation in March. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said that she hoped to hear a "wide and balanced range of views" about "what steps to take" on ergonomics (Greenhouse, New York Times, 7/17). "We want to find a way to prevent injuries that will survive the expected torrent of criticism, litigation and congressional review," Chao said (Gupta, Los Angeles Times, 7/17). During the forum, a panel of industry executives and doctors said that the government should not issue new mandatory regulations. They also said that researchers have found "no scientific proof" linking physical conditions in the workplace to injuries such as back pain and carpal tunnel syndrome (New York Times, 7/17). In addition, industry representatives said that federal regulation would "impose heavy costs" on employers who "already are taking steps" to combat injuries related to ergonomics (Los Angeles Times, 7/17).
Union officials said that during the past 10 years, Congress has commissioned several studies, which found that workplace conditions can cause ergonomics injuries. "Industry doesn't want any new rules, and they'll say whatever it takes to prevent them," AFL-CIO Safety Director Peg Seminario said (New York Times, 7/17). A federally funded National Academy of Sciences report issued in January found that ergonomics injuries affect about one million employees each year, resulting in $45 billion to $54 billion in lost wages and productivity (Gannett News Service/azcental.com, 7/17). In addition, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka said that a "strong" ergonomics rule could save money for employers. "We're convinced that this can be a win-win scenario," he said (Los Angeles Times, 7/17). Still, union officials feared that Chao would propose "toothless, voluntary" guidelines for businesses rather than issue a new federal regulation. Chao said that she plans to announce a decision in September (New York Times, 7/17).
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Labor union officials said that Chao had "stacked" the forum with industry representatives (Chen, Wall Street Journal, 7/17). Some Democrats also "decried" the forum as a "sham," accusing the Bush administration of "protecting big business" (Strope, AP/Nando Times, 7/16). Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) plans to hold a separate hearing Wednesday (Wall Street Journal, 7/17). According to a Wellstone spokesperson, the hearing will "allow all the perspectives on this issue to be heard," including testimony from the National Academy of Sciences and the
American Physical Therapy Association (Gannett News Service/Arizona Republic, 7/17).