Ergonomic experts boycott conference

Leading scientists accuse government of distorting science for political ends

January 26, 2004|By David Kohn | David Kohn,SUN STAFF

For more than two decades, Barbara Silverstein has studied work-related injuries. Among her many subjects have been nurses, meatpackers, truckers, foundry workers, autoworkers, poultry processors and loggers.

So was she happy when the federal government decided to sponsor a two-day symposium on workplace ailments?

Quite the contrary.

"It's an incredible waste," said Silverstein, an epidemiologist who works for the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries.

She's not the only scientist who feels that way: 11 of the country's leading ergonomists are boycotting the meeting, which begins tomorrow. They accuse the Bush administration of distorting science for political ends.

The highly unusual action has set off a harsh dispute between the administration and the researchers, who say more than enough evidence exists linking work to a variety of injuries.

They accuse industry and the administration of trying to avoid a debate over workplace regulations by questioning accepted ergonomic research. "It's a stall tactic," Silverstein said.

In a letter to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is sponsoring the meeting, the 11 scientists say it will only rehash questions that have been exhaustively researched and resolved.

"We were invited to participate in a symposium that isn't necessary," David Wegman, dean of the School of Health and Environment at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Gary Visscher, OSHA's deputy administrator, defended the meeting, saying it will cover new ground. "Time passes. There's new stuff coming in all the time," he said.

The boycott is the most recent round in a continuing fight over workplace-safety standards. Most ergonomic scientists, unions and workplace-safety advocates argue that some types of work and a variety of musculoskeletal injuries are clearly linked.

But many business and industry groups, the Bush administration, and a few scientists say the link remains unproven.

"There's got to be a certain level of proof before the government steps in. We're not there yet," said Randel Johnson, vice president for labor issues at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The stakes are enormous. Each year, at least 1 million Americans suffer significant work-related injuries, according to a 2001 report by the National Academies of Science.

These injuries, including wrist and hand problems among computer users and back, knee and shoulder ailments in construction workers and nurses, cost the economy about $50 billion a year, the report said.

Public health groups have long argued that federal ergonomic rules - the so-called ergonomic standard - would significantly reduce these injuries. But many industries oppose the rules, arguing that they lack any objective basis.

By focusing on what is portrayed as a scientific dispute, opponents of regulation effectively block any action, critics argue.

"It reminds me of the tobacco controversy of 40 years ago," said Dr. Bradley Evanoff, a professor of occupational medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, who studies injuries in nurses and hospital orderlies.

`Paralysis by analysis'

From industry's perspective, this strategy makes sense, opponents say. For many companies, any delay in carrying out ergonomic changes could save millions.

The OSHA meeting may be part of that strategy, said boycotter Don Chaffin, a University of Michigan industrial engineer, who has studied ergonomics for more than three decades.

"If enough people get up and say, `We need to know more, we need to know more,' we'll end up with another comprehensive review. It's called paralysis by analysis," said Chaffin, who designs worker-friendly environments for large auto, aircraft and trucking companies, as well as the Army.

This isn't the first time the Bush administration has angered the scientific community. Critics in several disciplines have accused the White House of censoring scientific reports that conflict with its policies, packing federal advisory committees with industry-friendly researchers and obstructing research that could lead to new or tougher regulations.

But this dispute has become nasty, at least by the courteous standards of science. Last month, OSHA director John L. Henshaw questioned the boycotters' professionalism. "The good scientists will engage in the process and behave like responsible people," Henshaw told Inside OSHA, a newsletter that reports on the agency.

But even some of the symposium's supporters praise the critics' credentials. Among them is Dr. Edward Bernacki, director of Health, Safety and Environment at the Johns Hopkins University, who helped plan the OSHA symposium; he called its critics "very good" scientists.

Bernacki is a member of the National Advisory Committee on Ergonomics, a 15-person group assembled by OSHA in 2002. The group invited participants to the symposium to present "data-driven scientific research" on the relationship between the workplace and musculoskeletal disorders.

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