Business interests launched a court challenge intended to kill the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s new ergonomics rule – and accused the Clinton administration of playing politics as its term comes to a close.

The enormous and complex rule, scheduled to be published in today’s Federal Register, is intended to protect workers from a wide variety of ills associated with repetitive motion (see related story). OSHA contends that these musculoskeletal disorders are a significant health issue that needs to be addressed with regulation.
Yesterday the National Assn. of Manufacturers, joined by American Trucking Assns. and the American Moving and Storage Assn., among other groups, petitioned for a court review of the rule, with the aim of stopping it.
OSHA is moving too quickly – from proposed rule to final rule in a year, said NAM Senior Vice President Mike Baroody. “You cannot do something this big this fast and still do it right.”
OSHA also is fulfilling Vice President Al Gore’s promise to the AFL-CIO that the rule would be posted before the end of the Clinton administration, Baroody charged.
“The breathtaking speed with which OSHA has promulgated the rule makes it clear (that) this is not a health and safety rule, it’s a political payoff,” he said. “And it’s a scandal.”
Baroody claimed that OSHA timed the release to prevent Congress from stopping the rule. Congress returns to Capitol Hill today to finish business that was interrupted by last week’s election. The ergonomics rule was a major issue in the fight over funding the government next year, but by posting it today, the agency effectively takes it off the congressional agenda.
“OSHA will say it had no choice,” said Baruch Fellner, an attorney representing NAM and a coalition of business interests opposed to the rule. “But it is clear that (the agency) intended to preempt congressional deliberation.”
NAM also contends that the rule makes employers liable for injuries that may have been aggravated by work but were not caused by work, Baroody said. It also overrides worker compensation laws, and gives trauma associated with repetitive stress a “most-favored injury status,” he said.
Fellner said that the suit will focus on four contentions: that the rule is not supported by medical science; that it is too vague to meet government standards; that OSHA’s economic analysis is flawed; and that the agency has violated government procedures.
Business groups say OSHA has vastly underestimated the cost of its rule. OSHA has estimated $4.232 billion for all employers. The Employment Policy Foundation, a non-profit think tank funded by businesses, estimated $35 billion to $99 billion. Even the Clinton administration’s Small Business Administration has estimated costs from 2.5 to 15 times higher than OSHA’s, according to NAM.
NAM also claims that workplace injuries are slowing. Citing Bureau of Labor numbers, the lobbying group says, for example, that the number of workplace sprains, strains and tears dropped 26% between 1992 and 1998.
Ed Gilroy, a lobbyist for ATA and spokesman for the National Coalition on Ergonomics, attributed the decline to industry efforts to make the workplace safer. “Not only because it is good business practice, but because it is the right thing to do,” he said.
Baroody said the business interests are not opposed to ergonomic regulations. “I cannot say what an acceptable rule might be, but it would certainly need to focus on performance instead of the broad brush that affects all businesses the same.”