April 13th, 2001

Ergonomics Support in the Bush Administration-It’s not who you think

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On March 29-30, 2001, Georgetown University held a Workplace Safety Summit. The University described this event as, “The first national event of its kind [with] aims to promote dialogue [on workplace safety] by bringing together high-level stakeholders and serving as a powerful catalyst for ongoing change.”

While this in itself is great news, the real news came from comments made by keynote speaker Paul O’Neill who is currently the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. As former chairman and CEO of Alcoa, and president of International Paper Company before that, O’Neill knows a thing or two about workplace safety.

While at Alcoa he instituted programs and management that was able to significantly reduce the number of workplace injuries. In O’Niell’s speech he talked about the OSHA ergonomics program standard which was effectively dismissed by the Bush administration. He also suggested that instead of the generic program standard that OSHA proposed, we should consider a single mandatory standard where a company would be required to reduce its workplace injuries to two cases per year for every one-hundred workers. The penalty for not meeting this standard would be very harsh: get shut down.

Some lobbyists thought that these remarks were not in tune with the views of the Bush administration. Michele Davis, Treasury spokeswoman, was quick to point out that O’Niell was speaking from corporate experience and is not involved in making labor policy stating that reports that reports that his views are in conflict with the administration are “erroneous”.

The Washington Post quoted Patrick Clearly, vice president of human resources for National Association of Manufacturers as saying, “I think we would say Secretary O’Niell’s heart is in the right place, but it’s not a proposal we could support.” The Post also reported AFL-CIO health and safety director Peg Seminario as saying O’Niell’s approach would “drive underground the reporting of injuries”.

While Secretary O’Niell is not involved in making labor policy today, he was one of the policymakers in 1971 involved in the creation of OSHA. And while he was no doubt made Treasury Secretary due to his experience with the financial aspect of corporations, the US Office of Management and Budget, and the US Veterans Administration, one of his first initiatives in the Treasury office was more about ergonomics than economics. Earlier this year O’Neill set up safety teams to address recording and minimization of injury rates within the Treasury.

Other speakers at the Georgetown event included:

  • Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Chair, Senate Subcommittee on Administrative Oversight
  • Chad Holliday, Chairman and CEO, DuPont
  • Peg Seminario, Director, Department of Occupation Safety & Heath, AFL-CIO
  • Jay Greenspan, JMJ Associates
  • Ron Hayes, The FIGHT Project
  • Professor Emily Spieler, College of Law, West Virginia University
  • Stephen Newell, Organization Resources Counselors, Inc.
  • Mike Langlais, Investor Responsibility Research Center
  • Julie Fox Gorte, The Calvert Group


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