Michigan is attempting to craft a workplace ergonomics standard. It’s a brave effort because the state is as politically antagonistic to regulations as the present United States Congress. Remember how quickly it dispatched the national standard introduced by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) in 2001. The Michigan version faces a similar fate when it reaches the Republican-controlled state legislature. Nonetheless, some opponents want to deliver the coup de grâce now. They regard the attempt to develop the standard as an affront.
A red state is an improbable place to launch a quest for a standard. One state official explains the anomaly as a legacy of OSHA’s failed effort in 2001. “The OSHA situation raised awareness,” said Doug Kalinowski, Director of Michigan’s OSHA (MIOSHA) at the state’s Department of Labor and Economic Growth (DLEG). After it was killed and rules were eliminated, he explained in an interview with The Ergonomics Report™, one of the state’s OSHA commissioners looked at the number of workplace injuries and suggested a standard could make sense for Michigan. The MIOSHA director said the commissioner argued that even minimal rules could have some impact.
John Engler, the Republican governor at the time, agreed. Two of the state’s original three OSHA standards committees formed a sub group, built the outline for the project and set up the Ergonomics Advisory Committee to come up with appropriate wording for the rules.
Governor Engler picked the original members of the panel. They included technical advisors and a safety standards commissioner, plus representatives from organized labor, industry, business and public figures. Explaining the choice of panelists, Kalinowski said the MIOSHA Act stipulates “when you are going to promulgate rules in Michigan … it (is) required that an advisory committee of people affected by the rules should prepare a draft set of the rules.”
The panel has met monthly for nearly two years and is on the 10th draft of proposed rules that would govern how employers must identify and address conditions that could put workers at risk for job-related injuries caused by repetitive motion, force and other factors.
The Michigan OSHA director emphasized it is not the panel’s responsibility to “consider whether rules should or should not be in place,” but its members must agree on the wording and on which sectors should be subjected to regulation. They are trying to draft minimal rules using a consensus process, he explained. “In other words, when everyone walks out of the room, they can support this.” The 10th and present draft excludes construction, agriculture, mining and domestic employment.
Governor Engler’s actions set into motion a process that opponents haven’t succeeded in halting. The reason? “The process I described is mandated by Michigan law,” Kalinowski explained. “(It’s) not an optional process.” Right now, it is at about Step 3 of about 27 steps, he said. “It’s still very early on. The next step in the process is if and when the advisory committee finalizes some rules.” Then it goes back to the commissioners for their views, he said. If they are rejected, the rules go back to the advisory panel for more work or to public hearings. Or the commissioners can make the changes.
Three Steps Too Many for the Opposition
The process is only on the third step of a long flight, but it is already three steps too many for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. In an interview with The Ergonomics Report™, Wendy Hofmeyer, Director of Health Policy and Human Resources, was scathing. “There is no reason why Michigan should impose an unnecessary and burdensome ergonomics rule because under current law MIOSHA has the right to intervene in workplace safety issues if the department believes there is a safety threat to workers,” she said. “It has been over 18 months since MIOSHA began work on this rule yet officials of the (Governor) Granholm administration still does not have a response for why, on one hand, the Governor is calling on the Legislature and Congress to enact policies that will positively impact the nation’s manufacturing sector, yet on the other hand, is continuing to illegally move forward on developing a new, job-killing rule that will cost manufacturers and other job providers hundreds of millions of dollars to comply.”
If the Governor is serious about protecting and creating jobs and getting Michigan back on the right track, Hofmeyer said, “she would have already stopped the promulgation of this burdensome and costly ergonomics rule.”
Hofmeyer may be wrong about the Governor’s enthusiasm for the standard. Governor Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, appears to be standing back from the debate. An article in Crain’s Detroit, a Michigan business publication, quotes her press secretary, Liz Boyd as saying the governor’s office has not taken a position on whether mandated standards should be in place, and “is letting this process play out.”
The Chamber spokesperson is not alone in calling any move towards ergonomics regulations a job killer. According to the Crain’s article, the description made headlines in the state in February 2004 when Charles Owens, the State Director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), resigned from the ergonomics advisory panel in protest. “At a time when Michigan is shedding manufacturing jobs by the thousands,” he said, “I find it incredible that we are about to become only the second state in the country, besides California, to have our own state specific ergonomics standard replete with fines, penalties and compliance enforcement. Certainly this does not seem to indicate that we are serious about saving and creating jobs in Michigan.”
Asked if the job-killer charge has any validity, the MIOSHA director concedes the perception of rules “could cause issues” for companies averse to regulations. He regards suspicion of an ergonomics standard as misplaced. “Typically, in Michigan … the companies that are taking care of safety and health are also the most successful ones, the ones adding employees (and remaining) stable, because it’s a culture. If you have a culture that’s positive about safety, you have a culture that’s positive about productivity and quality etc.” That is what the successful companies are all about in Michigan or any state, he added.
It’s not an overnight process, so time is on the side of opponents to find a way to deal a death blow to the panel’s work. The present effort in concentrated on killing the panel’s budget. Business lobbyists insist the panel’s work violates a business-requested provision in the recently approved 2006 DLEG budget that prohibits the use of state funds to develop mandates more stringent than federal voluntary ergonomics guidelines. At least two business and industry representatives have resigned from the panel because it continues to meet despite the budget prohibition. Greg Bird, a spokesman for the state budget office, says the provision is unenforceable because it attempts to amend MIOSHA through a budget bill, rather than through MIOSHA law.
In the Crain’s article, State Rep. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, described the opponents’ next line of attack. He plans to introduce legislation prohibiting the state from enacting the ergonomics rules. “I feel very, very strongly that if we were to put in a Michigan-specific ergonomics rule, we might as well put up a big stop sign to businesses that says, ‘Don’t bring your jobs to Michigan.’ ”
Voluntary Guidelines – A Possible Answer?
Voluntary ergonomics guidelines, the White House’s consolation prize to the proponents of the national standard, would seem to be the answer for a state with an aversion to rules. There is nothing in the rhetoric of the panel’s critics to suggest they would oppose a voluntary approach. A statement on the Michigan Chamber of Commerce web site declares, “Voluntary and cooperative efforts between labor and management to promote safety in the workplace” would be acceptable.
The MIOSHA director’s reaction to guidelines is more guarded. “The voluntary approach works for people who listen,” he explained. “There are people who know about issues and they take care of them. Then the ones in the middle, who know they have issues but don’t know how to take care of them. Then you have the ones one the bottom, who know they have issues, (but would just as soon ignore them) and pay $250,000 a year on workers comp costs as the cost of doing business. Those are the ones you can’t get through to … you can’t get through to that bottom level because they don’t care. “Whether there’s rules or guidelines, the ones in the middle are the ones we’ve got to convince.”
Any attempt to substitute voluntary guidelines for rules can expect vocal opposition from labor union members of the advisory panel. The Ergonomics Report™ asked the AFL-CIO’s representative on the panel, Derrick Quinney, whether the union would settle for a voluntary standard. He indicated it wouldn’t. “Voluntary standards already exist, workplace injuries are on the rise and employers are doing nothing to address this issue. … We believe more can and should be done on this, so we support an ergonomics standard.”
Explaining the Union’s position in the Crain’s article, Kenneth Fletcher, legislative director for the Michigan State AFL-CIO, said the state-specific standard is important “because ergonomic injuries are a huge drain on the economy … in lost work time, workers’ compensation costs, and other costs to employers. Dealing with this problem in a proactive way just makes sense.”
No Escaping the Politics
Politics determines the outcome of most measures to improve the lives of Americans, and the AFL-CIO’s Quinney suggests the quest for an ergonomics standard is no exception. The public hearing he attended when the panel first came together was split down political lines, he said, “and for the most part, still is. Republicans are doing all they can to oppose any standard, even though we have not as a committee even offered anything to them.”
MIOSH Director Kalinowski made a case for an ergonomics standard, though he prefaced it by emphasizing DLEG’s neutrality and his own on whether it should be introduced.
Clearly if there are rules, he explained, it increases awareness. “When OSHA was in the process of promulgating their rules, we put on voluntary seminars on ergonomics all over the state … our ergonomics seminars (were packed). They wanted to know what was going on because they wanted to be sure they followed the rules. And once the ergonomics rules went away, the attendance at our seminars really dropped off, even though the message was just the same – that (these) are some of the basic issues of dealing with backs and repetitive motion and handtools etc.”
Sources: Doug Kalinowski; Wendy Hofmeyer; Derrick Quinney; Michigan Chamber of Commerce, Crains Detroit
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2005-11-23.