Fuel Smarts

Reinventing the Ergonomics Rule

April 18, 2001

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When Congress and President Bush killed the Clinton administration's ergonomics regulations, they left a hole begging to be filled. At this point, however, there is no agreement on what to put in it.

Throughout the debate that led to the repeal of the rule, the refrain was that this was not a move against ergonomics rules in general, just this rule in particular. Many who voted against the Clinton rule said they still believe a rule is needed.
The Clinton rule aimed to reduce injuries attributed to work-related activities by requiring companies to educate employees about ergonomic risks, and create protection programs if employees were injured. Business interests said the rule would never work: It was confusing, burdensome, expensive and unlikely to be effective.
When he signed the law that repealed the rule, President Bush said that he intends to work with business and labor on a "comprehensive approach" to ergonomics that addresses the shortcomings of the Clinton rule.
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, in whose court the ball now rests, said the new solution may come as a rule, as legislation or as guidelines. She is meeting with labor and business interests but as yet has not announced a plan.
She did note, however, that while about a third of workplace injuries are musculoskeletal in nature, the number of ergonomics-related injures is declining. She hinted that she favors prevention and compliance assistance as a remedy, rather than rules that react to an event that already has occurred.
Meanwhile, other possibilities are in the works.
Sen. John Breaux, D.-La., has introduced a bill that would require the Labor Department to issue a new rule within two years. He envisions a rule that would cap compensation at what states already offer through worker's compensation, and covers only injuries that happen on the job. Business interests said the Clinton rule would have made it easy for workers to say they were injured on the job even if they were not.
According to a report in The Washington Post, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill has another idea: Don't write any rules, just agree that if a company is not safe it will be shut down.
He suggested "an agreement that said within two years every organization in the United States - public, private, nonprofits - will have a lost workday rate under 2.0 or we're going to take away your license." (The lost workday rate refers to the number of days of injury or illness for each 100 employees per year.)
O'Neill cited his success at Alcoa, where he was chairman for 13 years, in bringing the lost workday rate down from 1.86 to .14.
Under his plan, O'Neill said, "I guarantee you, 95% or 98% of all the organizations in America would get under 2.0."

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