Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate labor committee, and two other Senate Democrats, Tom Harkin of Iowa, and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, have asked the Department of Labor for details on who, exactly, is helping develop a plan to reduce workplace injuries. They are also asking for copies of all the administration’s correspondence on the issue of workplace ergonomics. Included in this list are requests for all relevant memorandums and letters, including e-mail messages, prepared or received by department employees, on the new workplace ergonomics plan.
The New York Times reports that Baruch A. Fellner, a lawyer who represented the industry coalition that worked to repeal the rules, said he thought that the department could assert “deliberative privilege” for much of the senators’ request.
“To intrude in this process while it is ongoing,” Mr. Fellner said, “is at the very least premature. The kinds of resources that will have to be devoted to scurrying around to reply could be devoted to developing the comprehensive ergonomics approach.”
Patrick Cleary, representing the National Association of Manufacturers, said Congress had the power to receive the information, although he called the request unwise.
A spokeswoman for Secretary Chao and the Department of Labor said: “The secretary indicated that we would develop a comprehensive plan on ergonomics. We intend to do that soon.”
Last month, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) notified about 13,000 employers nationwide that “employees in your business are being injured at a higher rate than in most other businesses in the country.”
While the letters impose no fines, they do warn the company that they may be targeted for a follow-up visit from OSHA. Many of the workplaces targeted have high rates of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), signaling potential action in the area of occupational ergonomics. Industries targeted for later inspection include airlines, freight handlers, and nursing homes.
Speaking this week at the Applied Ergonomics conference in Baltimore, Maryland, Assistant Secretary John Henshaw stated that OSHA has taken notice of the high incidence of back and shoulder MSDs in nursing homes, and the industry has been identified for “Site Specific Targeting” by the agency. As has been the case since the first deadline for OSHA to unveil it’s comprehensive approach to ergonomics passed last September, Henshaw could only say that the announcement would be made “soon.”
Patient handling in hospitals and nursing homes has become a hot-button issue for regulators, and may well define the direction and methods OSHA takes in other industries. Patient handling will be the focus of the feature article in April’s Ergonomics Report