Washington - A decade-long effort to give workers new protections against repetitive motion injuries is coming to a head with the Clinton administration, over the objections of Congress, intent on implementing workplace rules this year.
The GOP majority in Congress is equally determined to put off the new rules until next year, when they hope there will be a Republican in the White House more sympathetic to the business community's strong opposition to the rules.
Both the House and the Senate this summer voted mainly along party lines to bar the Occupational Safety and Health Administration from releasing final repetitive motion injury standards during the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
The White House said that delay was unacceptable, and has made it one of the key issues, along with education spending, in ongoing negotiations over a $350 billion bill to fund labor, education and health programs in fiscal 2001.
Last November, after a decade of studies that began during the Bush administration, OSHA issued proposed standards to protect workers from back injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome and other work-related disorders.
OSHA contends that every year 1.8 million workers suffer from ergonomic injuries and 600,000 workers lose a day or more of work. It says businesses pay out $15 to $20 billion each year in compensation related to these disorders, one-third of all worker compensation costs.
OSHA says the rules would cost businesses some $4.5 billion to implement but would reap $9 billion a year in savings from medical expenses and workers' compensation.
Business groups, however, cite a study by the Economic Policy Foundation, a think tank, that estimated costs of more than $90 billion a year over 10 years.
Stephen Bokat, senior vice president and general counsel for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the proposed rules don't adequately define hazards and preventive measures, could make businesses liable for non-work related injuries and create conflicts with current worker compensation laws. If the rules are enacted in their current form, the Chamber will challenge them in court, he said.
Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, a leading opponent of the proposed rules, said in a recent statement that they could result in job losses, hiring freezes and lowered salaries. The proposal "has the ability to kill hundreds of small businesses across our country."
On the other side, Peg Seminario, health and safety director for the AFL-CIO, said repetitive stress is "the biggest safety and health problem that exists" for workers in fields ranging from data entry to health care to construction.
Republicans, she said, have consistently delayed federal action since they gained control of Congress in 1995 and are now trying to outlast Clinton's days in the White House. "I don't think it's a matter of money, it's more a matter of ideology: They don't want the government involved in mandating that employers take action, they don't want regulation, period."
Senate Republicans last week suggested a compromise under which the ban on promulgating the final rule would be for six months rather than the full year. Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said that proposal was unacceptable.
"Every month we delay, 50,000 more workers suffer painful and often crippling injuries," Kennedy said. "It is long past time for Congress to let this needed rule take effect."
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