January 20 could see the Democratic Party at the helm of the United States. Opponents of workplace regulations face the possibility that their easy ride under the Republican administration of President George W. Bush could be over. This powerful lobby doesn’t plan to lose Round Two of the fight for workplace ergonomics regulations.
It is clear from recent interviews with spokespeople from organizations on opposite sides of the ergonomics issue — the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) — that the rematch will be welcome.
For much of the mid- to late 1990s, the Republican-controlled Congress handcuffed the Democratic administration of then-president Bill Clinton from issuing the so-named Ergonomics Program Standard of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) through appropriations riders. Toward the end of his second term, Clinton fought off that restriction, and the new rule was issued in mid-November of 2000.
The opponents lost the first round, but their fortunes changed at the end of 2000 when a president with an ideological antipathy to regulations and a like-minded Congress won control of the government. Republican President George W. repealed the Standard soon after taking office. It was the only regulation that Congress has overturned through the Congressional Review Act.
The United States Chamber of Commerce remains in the forefront of the opposition alliance that included NAM as a key member. On its web site NAM recommends more emphasis on creating a favorable business climate through decreasing government regulation, a position that is common to the opponents.
Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO Health and Safety Director, began the September interview by recapping the opponents efforts to overturn the Standard in the 1990s and 2000. She said it now looks as if the Chamber “is picking up where it left off, which is trying to prevent action on this important hazard [ergonomics-related risk factors in the workplace.]”
For the opposition bloc, ergonomics regulation represents the true hazard. On its web site the Chamber chronicles the history of Round One, referring to the demolition of the Standard, in so many words, as a proud moment: “Thanks to the Chamber’s extensive grassroots efforts, in March 2001 Congress invoked the Congressional Review Act to reject the Clinton Administration’s ergonomics regulation.”
OSHA replaced the Standard on 5 April 2002 with a "comprehensive approach to ergonomics designed to reduce ergonomic injuries through a combination of guidelines, enforcement, outreach and assistance, and research."
Though it was voluntary and toothless, the “comprehensive approach” found no favor with the members of the bloc. Their National Coalition on Ergonomics (NCE), which describes itself as a "coalition of business and professional organizations in opposition to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s efforts to regulate ergonomics," was instrumental in overturning the Standard. The NCE was assigned to weaken features of the voluntary guidelines that ran counter to the interests of the business community. The result was a set of guidelines that covered only a narrow set of industries.
On its web site, the Chamber points to the disbanding of a body set up to advise OSHA on the guidelines, the National Advisory Committee on Ergonomics (NACE), as a key achievement. The NACE chairman was ergonomist Carter Kerk, Ph.D., CPE.
The long stretch of Republican control of Congress allowed NCE to doze through 2005 and 2006, but ergonomics regulation ceased to be an unmentionable in Congress in 2007 when the Democratic Party held voting power again. Now, pre-election polls predict healthy gains in Congress for the Democrats, even if the party does not succeed in winning the White House.
Anticipating the rematch, the opponents are building strategies aimed at repeating their 2001 coup against regulations. On its web site, the Chamber lists “Stopping Harmful Election-Year Legislation” among its priorities in 2008. “We will oppose new [workplace] mandates, including efforts to resurrect the anti-business ergonomics standard …,” according to the position statement.
One early effort included the forum organized by the Chamber on September 12 in Washington DC – “Ergonomics in the 21st Century: Toward a New Paradigm.” Industry officials discussed their strategy for how to deal with the possible re-emergence of what they describe as one of the most controversial regulations ever issued by the United States government. The meeting was aimed at re-energizing the NCE.
NAM is also honing its strategy. Director of Employment and Labor Policy Keith Smith told The Ergonomics Report™ in September that his organization is “well aware of and very concerned with the likelihood that [presidential candidate Barak] Obama would reinstate the ergonomics standard if elected.” NAM was “very key in the efforts to inject a bit of commonsense into this discussion early on at the beginning part of the decade when Congress was successful in reversing the Clinton administration standard,” he added. “We would be expected to continue that same policy going into a new administration.”
One of the biggest concerns we’ve seen with a lot of proposals that Sen. Obama has put forward in terms of health and safety, he said, “is that it looks like he’d like to see a return to the Clinton-era regulation … rather than really engaging this issue.” If it is a simple reconsideration of the 2000 Standard, he added, NAM “would continue to oppose that as one of the most egregious increases in cost of doing business here in the United States.”
Referring to the labyrinthine ways of Washington, he warned that it won’t be easy for Obama to “impose” the Standard. “There are a lot of efforts on the Congressional level that would need to happen first,” he explained, and the political environment ahead depends on election day, the composition of Congress and “the priorities that they engage in.” His response suggests NAM is confident of protecting its interests in Congress, regardless of which party wins the upper hand. NAM’s organizing and lobbying, he said, is preparing for the year ahead. “And ergonomics is definitely part of the concerns that we may face.”
If Sen. Obama wins the presidency, the re-energized NCE will need all the energy it can muster because he vows to see ergonomics rules returned.
It is no surprise that Obama has the support of the AFL-CIO. Spokesperson Seminario told the Ergonomics Report™ that the union will strongly support the new administration “to take a new look at ergonomics and to move forward with protection for workers.”
She said Obama has been very supportive of worker safety and protection, and has been co- sponsor of every major piece of health and safety legislation that has come forward in the Senate. “He’s been on the Labor Committee. When he came into the Senate, that was the committee he chose to be on, so he’s been involved in these issues and is a strong supporter of strong workplace health and safety protection.”
Obama’s rival in the race for the White House, Republican Sen. John McCain, can be expected to resist workplace regulation as a matter of Republican ideology. Ergonomics regulation is not mentioned on his campaign web site.
Seminario noted that McCain didn’t respond to the union’s questionnaire on workplace health and safety issues, and has been consistently opposed to workplace regulations as a legislator. He voted to overturn the standard, she said. Over John McCain’s years as a legislator he has never been engaged in worker issues of any sort, “and so I would think he would just continue the same failed policies of the Bush administration in this area.” On any worker safety issue that has come before him, she said, he has voted the wrong way. “There’s nothing to think they [the Republicans] would do anything different.
She described the campaign the Chamber ran against the Standard as “slash and burn… a dishonest campaign.” When they said they were not opposed to an ergonomics standard and only opposed to the 2000 standard, she said, it wasn’t true. “Since that time they have opposed every voluntary standard to come along. They’ve opposed the Bush administration voluntary guidelines. They don’t want anything.”
Seminario scoffed at the voluntary guidelines, describing them as a sham. “There really hasn’t been a voluntary approach,” she asserted. “Then they came out with four different sets of workplace guidelines for four sectors. So for the vast majority of sectors there are no guidelines. They essentially stopped doing any enforcement of the new General Duty Clause, [and] stopped any major outreach on the issue…. If you go back and look at what their announcement was in 2002 for what they were going to do on a voluntary basis, they haven’t done it.”
Neither side of the ergonomics issue can predict the challenges they face in 2009 and beyond. Ahead of the election, the only certainty is that there will be a rematch and is will be as intense as the first round.
Sources: Peg Seminario; Keith Smith; AFL-CIO; NAM; US Chamber of Commerce; barakobama.com; johnmccain.com
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2008-09-17.