Ergonomics reversal a win for business

Lobbyists: Stressing the costs of meeting regulations, businesses swayed Congress into reversing workplace rules.

March 11, 2001|By Peter H. Stone

ORGANIZED labor fought mightily, but last week's actions by Congress to reverse a Clinton administration workplace regulation marked an awesome win for business.

After several weeks of high-powered lobbying by the business community, Congress, with the blessings of the White House, overturned workplace safety regulations that were strongly backed by organized labor.

The rules were aimed at preventing carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis and other problems associated with repetitive motion, contact stress and other on-the-job conditions. These injuries affect an estimated 1.8 million workers annually. At-risk workers include those who tap on keyboards; stock grocery shelves; stuff meat or poultry packages; or perform other jobs.

Using for the first time a measure called the Congressional Review Act that strictly limits debates and bars amendments, both Houses of Congress voted along party lines to kill ergonomics rules that became effective shortly before Clinton left office. Opponents of the regulations fiercely attacked them, citing compliance cost estimates as high as $120 billion annually. Businesses also maintained that the rules would mire them in mountains of bureaucratic red tape.

The sweeping standards, which were issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, would have covered about 102 million workers and more than six million sites.

Last week's actions are testimony to the enhanced clout of business in Washington with a Republican in the White House and the GOP controlling Congress.

Kentucky Republican Rep. Anne Northup, who cosponsored the CRA resolution of disapproval in the House, says it passed because "a lot of people heard from the grass-roots groups in their districts" about the difficulties and costs of complying with the OSHA regulations.

For labor, which had pressed for the OSHA rules for 10 years and also mounted a lobbying blitz to preserve them, the congressional action was a very bitter defeat.

"The business community and conservative Republicans are firmly in the driver's seat in Washington," said Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO's director of safety and health. "They won't hesitate to take action even if it means the devastation and destruction of the lives of working people."

To be sure, the congressional votes capped a furious lobbying drive in recent weeks that was marked by intense grass-roots pressure from many segments of the business community. Big business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers teamed up with such diverse groups as the American Trucking Associations and the American Bakers Association to mount one of the heaviest lobbying blitzes that Congress has seen in some time.

Many business lobbyists argued that the new rules were too intrusive, expensive and unnecessary because many companies have in recent years begun to address ergonomics problems on their own.

For instance, Tim Hammonds, the president of the Food Marketing Institute, says that since 1990 voluntary steps in his industry have cut repetitive stress injuries by 30 percent. But the precise cost of compliance with the rules, which were slated to be implemented by mid-October of this year, varied widely according to different studies. OSHA had estimated that the first-year cost to businesses would total $4.5 billion. For its part, the National Association of Manufacturers calculated that the rules in the first year would have cost business $6.5 billion.

OSHA and labor also argued that the rules would save an estimated $9 billion yearly by reducing worker-compensation and medical claims and by losing fewer work days. Backers of the standards got a boost in mid-January, when the National Academy of Sciences issued a long-awaited study that was requested by Congress which estimated that repetitive-stress injuries in the workplace cost $50 billion a year in lost wages, productivity and compensation costs.

But with Bush poised to enter the White House, business saw a golden opportunity to jettison the standards and accelerated its lobbying. One business lobbyist said early this year that White House aides have "heard more than they want to" about industry's desire to get rid of the new regulations. For instance, at a Jan. 13 summit on the economy held in Austin, key Bush advisers including Karl Rove heard from some top food industry executives about the need to stop the ergonomics rule and curb other regulations, according to lobbying sources.

Moreover, several of the trade groups active in the effort to rollback the OSHA rules boasted executives who were leading fund-raisers for the Bush campaign such as Hammonds of the food group, or had recently kicked in large quantities of soft money to Republican Party coffers.

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