Senate fight brews over ergonomic regulations
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A Republican bill to be offered in the Senate next week could trigger a high-stakes battle between labor and business interests.
Senate Republicans want to overturn Clinton administration regulations designed to prevent workplace injuries. They say the new rules are an unnecessary burden on employers. GOP aides say they'll employ rarely used law -- Congressional Review Act -- will allow a quick and limited debate on the bill.
The Clinton administration issued Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations in mid-November to force employers to adopt preventive measures to avoid workplace injuries caused by repetitive strain, also called musculo-skeletal disorders.
The so-called "ergonomics" rules did not go into effect until January 16, and businesses have until October to comply.
"The ergonomics regulations issued in the eleventh hour of the Clinton administration make work illegal in the workplace," said Brook Simmons, spokesman for Sen. Don Nickles, R-Oklahoma, sponsor of the legislation to reverse the regulations.
"These rules were promulgated as a gift to organized labor as they slipped out of town without any thought as to what it meant for business and how they would comply with it," said Simmons.
Ergonomics rules were a major point of conflict between Republicans in Congress and President Clinton, and were a key sticking point in last year's budget negotiations.
Democrats are calling Senate Republicans' move to eliminate the rules an overt attempt at political payback to organized labor, which fought for Democrats and against GOP candidates in last November's election.
The workplace protections are of paramount importance to organized labor, whose leaders say repetitive stress is the number one preventable kind of injury for workers and would save employers more than $9 billion in workers' compensation costs.
In 1990, then-Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole began the OSHA's process of looking into ways to prevent repetitive stress injuries.
Workers who perform certain tasks over and over again, such as those who work on computer keyboards, at meat-cutting plants and in health-care facilities where they repeatedly lift or turn patients or medical equipment, can be prone to these injuries, according to the National Academy of Sciences.
In a study released in January, the academy said these injuries "can be attributed to particular jobs and working conditions -- including heavy lifting, repetitive and forceful motions and stressful work environments."
Labor leaders say they intend to fight big business and Republicans on the issue. At an AFL-CIO meeting with reporters, Bill Samuel, director of the organization's Legislation Department, said, "I can't think of an issue that more greatly affects families before Congress than this. It will be a true measure of the Republicans' compassionate conservatism."
The union, which represents 13 million working men and women nationwide, has launched a multimillion dollar lobbying campaign, both in local areas and on Capitol Hill.
At the meeting, reporters heard testimony from two women who detailed their repetitive strain injuries. One woman, a young technology professional at a dot-com publishing company, described her repetitive strain injury that eventually left her unable to use a computer.
"I now have trouble doing the things I once took for granted: squeezing bottles, driving, cooking, cutting food, dressing, opening mail," she said.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is also mobilizing its members in the business community to fight for the bill, citing sky-high costs to employers to change the workplace environment to comply would the rules.
Bill Miller, political director for the Chamber, said businesses would have to spend $129.4 billion dollars the first year and $90 billion annually after that.
Employers are also worried the rules are an invitation for mischief "not by employees, but by lawyers. This is a new treasure chest for slip and fall kind of lawsuits. The biggest fear is this will be misused," said Miller.
To exemplify how "fatally flawed" the regulations are, Republicans say workers like newspaper carriers, soft drink delivery drivers and even pretzel rollers will not be allowed to do their jobs.
Miller said both sides will be pressuring Democratic members.
"We spent $20 million to help candidates who voted with us in the 2000 elections and we will spend more in 2002," he said.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, is circulating a "Dear Colleague" letter urging them to vote against the GOP legislation because it not only wipes out existing rules, but also prevents OSHA from adopting any other regulations without prior congressional approval.
The Massachusetts Democrat accused Republicans of sounding the "death knell for protections from ergonomic injuries - the most significant safety and health problem that workers face today."
Kennedy also chastised Republicans for pushing the rejection of ergonomic regulations, which they believe they have the votes to pass, so soon in the new Congress and without warning.
"Perhaps Republicans would've given us some notice rather than try to spring it on us in the great spirit of bipartisanship," his letter goes on.
The Congressional Review Act of 1996, sponsored by Nickles and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, provides a 60-day window for Congress to reject final regulations issued by federal agencies.
It provides for 10 hours of debate, with no filibusters or amendments allowed.
Reuters contributed to this report.
Republicans move to overturn Clinton rules on workplace injuries
Occupational Safety & Health Administration
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