Nursing Homes Will Be First Industry to Face Ergonomic Guidelines
Moving forward with the Bush administration's plan to develop voluntary guidelines to protect workers in industries with high rates of muscular-skeletal injuries, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao announced yesterday that nursing homes will be the first industry to face such regulations, the AP/Nando Times reports (Strope, AP/Nando Times, 4/18). Earlier this month, the administration announced a four-part ergonomics initiative focusing on voluntary guidelines, increased enforcement, education and research (Fulton, CongressDaily, 4/18). "[Nursing home] workers play a vital role in caring for the needs of the elderly and infirm. But in the course of caring for others, they are frequently exposed to significant risks to their own health and safety," Chao told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (AP/Nando Times, 4/18). Labor Department officials said the agency will start by working with nursing home operators and workers to develop the voluntary guidelines, which will be based in part on a recent settlement between the department and Arkansas-based nursing home chain Beverly Enterprises. As part of the agreement, Beverly installed lifting equipment in its 270 facilities (Chen, Wall Street Journal, 4/19). Nursing homes nationwide reported 34,522 lost work days in 2000 because of back pains, sprains and muscle tears, a figure exceeded only by the airline and beverage distribution industries (Gannett News/Arizona Republic, 4/19). Chao said she hoped the nursing home guidelines would be ready by the end of the year. John Henshaw, director of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, told the committee that the administration would soon look to develop guidelines for other industries with high rates of workplace injuries.Nando Times reports.
Democrats on the committee offered a "systematic" attack on the Bush ergonomics initiative, saying that mandatory measures were needed to ensure that businesses take steps to reduce injuries. "The administration's plan is a replay of failed strategies from the past," Committee Chair Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said, adding, "They rely on toothless voluntary guidelines that most corporations will simply ignore." In March 2001, the Republican-controlled Congress, backed by President Bush, repealed ergonomics rules issued by the Clinton administration that would have implemented mandatory guidelines. Democrats also asked Chao how the department could bolster enforcement when the administration's budget would cut spending in that area (Greenhouse, New York Times, 4/18). Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) questioned the department's plan to use OSHA's "general duty" clause, which requires employers to remove any "recognized serious hazards" from the workplace, to bring enforcement actions against companies that do not follow the voluntary guidelines, saying that such enforcement is "lengthy, burdensome, expensive, resource intensive and ... not a preventative tool." Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) noted that while the general duty clause was used successfully in the Beverly case, that case took 10 years to settle and will take another five years to implement (CongressDaily/AM, 4/18). On Wednesday, Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), who voted to repeal the Clinton administration rules, introduced a bill with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) that would require the administration within two years to issue mandatory rules that would be less stringent than the Clinton administration regulations (New York Times, 4/18).
Answering Democratic criticism, Chao said, "I am convinced that our comprehensive plan on ergonomics will achieve the goal of protecting workers" (MacDonald, Hartford Courant, 4/19). She said that while the Clinton administration rules would have likely taken four-and-a-half years to implement and could have been delayed further by industry lawsuits, the Bush administration's voluntary approach will allow for much quicker implementation (New York Times, 4/19). Responding to Edwards' criticism, Chao said the department would "build on" the Beverly case and "move more quickly" in the future (CongressDaily, 4/18). Senate Republicans also praised the administration's plan. "The approach you're taking will be a quick way to get some great reductions in ergonomics injuries," Sen. Michael Enzi (R-Wyo.) said (New York Times, 4/19). Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) added, "This plan has more flexibility and responsiveness than any [mandatory] regulation could provide." He said that Breaux's bill would bring the repealed Clinton rule "back from the dustbin of bad government policy" (CongressDaily, 4/18).