Senate Votes to Repeal Ergonomics Rules
In a "major victory for business groups," the Senate yesterday voted 56-44 to repeal "far-reaching" ergonomics regulations issued by the Clinton administration in attempt to reduce the number of workplace injuries, the Washington Post reports (Dewar/Skrzycki, Washington Post, 3/7). The measure, which was approved hours after the Bush administration indicated its support for overturning the regulations, now moves to the House, where a vote could come as early as today (Espo, AP/Memphis Commercial Appeal, 3/7). Siding with industry groups who argued that the new rules were too costly, the White House released the following statement: "These regulations would cost employers, large and small, billions of dollars annually while providing uncertain benefits. If implemented, they would require employers to establish burdensome and costly new systems intended to track, prevent and provide compensation for an extremely broad class of injuries whose cause is subject to considerable dispute" (Anderson, Los Angeles Times, 3/7). All 50 Republican senators voted for repeal yesterday, and were joined by six Democrats: Max Baucus (Mont.), John Breaux (La.), Ernest Hollings (S.C.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Zell Miller (Ga.) (Ramstack, Washington Times, 3/7). The Wall Street Journal reports that while a "close vote" is expected in the House, supporters of the repeal have "express[ed] confidence" that they have enough votes to send the appeal to President Bush for approval (Chen, Wall Street Journal, 3/7).
The Senate vote came after 10 hours of "fiery partisan debate" between Democrats who argued that the new regulations -- issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Jan. 16 -- would protect American workers from workplace injuries, and Republicans who said that the rules were overbearing and would cost businesses billions in compliance costs (Los Angeles Times, 3/7). OSHA has estimated that the regulations will cost employers $4.5 billion, but will eventually create a $9 million annual savings in "lower medical insurance premiums and greater productivity." Business groups, however, say the actual cost could be as high as $120 billion (Washington Times, 3/7). "Waiving" the 608 pages of regulations and echoing the latter argument, Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) said, "This is the most expensive, intrusive regulation ever promulgated by the Department of Labor and maybe by any other department (Holland, Albany Times-Union, 3/7). Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) added, "OSHA has grossly underestimated the cost effect of its proposal. My greatest concern is for the small businesses of this country" (Washington Times, 3/7). On the other side, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said, "It's a major weakening in terms of the protections for American workers" (Los Angeles Times, 3/7). Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) added, "We should not bow to pressure from industry groups and wipe this worker safety standard off the face of the Earth" (Washington Times, 3/7).
Elaine Chao, secretary of the Labor Department, said yesterday that if the regulations are overtunrned, her department would pursue a "comprehensive approach to ergonomics, which may include new rule making, that addresses the concerns levied against the current standards." Democrats, however, expressed concern yesterday that the manner in which the repeal measure was passed might preclude future ergonomics rules. In overturning the rules yesterday, the Senate yesterday for the first time invoked the 1996 Congressional Review Act to overturn a federal regulation (Wall Street Journal, 3/7). The act -- which allows for "swift" action without hearings, committee approval or amendments and limits debate to 10 hours (preventing a filibuster) -- also "bars issuance of any new rule that is 'substantially' the same as a revoked rule." Citing this provision, Kennedy called the Senate repeal an "atom bomb for the ergonomics rule." However, Sen. Jim Jeffords (R-Vt.) chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, disagreed, as he said that OSHA could still issue a "more reasonable and workable ergo standard" (Washington Post, 3/7). In addition, Breaux, one of the six Democrats to vote for the repeal, called for a "new regulation directly related to injuries that occur in the workplace, which requires [the Labor Department] to certify that businesses are in compliance and does not expand workers' compensation laws (Fulton, CongressDaily/A.M., 3/7).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.