Business groups strategize for return of ergonomics regulation

Business groups are already preparing for a Labor Department run by the Obama administration.

Industry officials will gather Friday morning at the Chamber of Commerce to discuss their strategy of how to deal with the possible re-emergence of one of the most controversial regulations ever issued by the U.S. government.

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Aided by a GOP-controlled Congress and President Bush, business groups successfully lobbied lawmakers in 2001 to kill a Labor Department regulation aimed at reducing ergonomics-related injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

The ergonomics regulation, which was proposed in the waning days of the Clinton administration, was a top priority of union groups. It was the only regulation that Congress has overturned through the Congressional Review Act.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has promised to issue a new ergonomics regulation as president, and industry officials say they want to be ready for it.

In its “Save the Date” announcement of Friday’s meeting, the Chamber of Commerce stated that “the threat of a new ergonomics regulation has been kept in check by the Republican congressional majorities and the Bush administration. But with the recent shift in power on Capitol Hill, and regardless of who wins the White House, issuing a new ergonomics regulation will once again become a hot issue.”

Some industry officials say that Congress would have to expressly authorize a new regulation, but that is disputed by proponents of a new ergonomics rule. Regardless, Democrats are expected to control both the House and Senate next year and would likely have the votes to clear the way for an ergonomics regulation.

For much of the mid- to late 1990s, the GOP-controlled Congress handcuffed the Clinton administration-led Labor Department from issuing a standard through appropriations riders. Toward the end of his second term, President Clinton fought off that restriction, and the new rule was issued in mid-November of 2000.

Marc Freedman, director of labor law policy at the Chamber of Commerce, said, “What we’re saying here is that we anticipate this issue becoming active again and we believe that we have new research to demonstrate the validity of our position — that an ergonomics regulation is not appropriate.”

The new industry research is expected to be unveiled during Friday’s meeting.

{mospagebreak}Robb MacKie, president of the American Bakers Association, said the meeting represents a precautionary first step, adding, “Depending on the outcome of the November election, it could be back after several years of dormancy.”

The Chamber of Commerce and MacKie’s group were two of many influential industry associations that helped defeat the 2001 standard. Other groups included UPS, the American Trucking Associations, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Federation of Independent Business.

These business groups said the regulation would have cost millions, if not billions, in compliance costs.

AFL-CIO contends industry grossly exaggerated the costs of the standard, claiming that without a nationwide standard, workers are experiencing crippling injuries.

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“The priority and the need for action has not diminished,” said Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO.

According to Seminario, musculoskeletal disorders still account for more than 30 percent of all work-related injuries.

Much of the intense back-and-forth on ergonomics between industry and unions is on how to define a work-related injury. For example, unions point out that many nursing home workers hurt their backs trying to lift and assist their patients. Industry groups say back ailments are common and it is not the government’s role to assess whether such an injury happened on the job or during recreational activities.

For labor groups, the impending administration change offers a crucial chance to revisit ergonomics.

“I think it will be on their agenda in some way,” said Seminario. “The question is what approach should be taken.”

Obama has said that if he is elected president, he would reinstate the Labor Department/Occupational Safety and Health Administration ergonomics standard and “create a policy that supports workers,” while Sen. John McCain’s campaign has said that the Arizona GOP senator would not burden companies with such mandates. McCain voted in 2001 to scrap the Clinton administration ergonomics rule.

Another top priority for organized labor is the so-called “card check” bill, which would allow workers to join a union when a majority of them sign authorization cards. But in order to get that legislation signed into law in the next couple of years, Obama would have to be elected president and Democrats would need to significantly expand their majority in the Senate.

Business groups strongly oppose card check legislation, which passed the House last year.