Politics & Government

Labor's revival could reignite fight over ergonomics

Ergonomic issues may return to the workplace
Ergonomic issues may return to the workplace George Skene/Orlando Sentinel

WASHINGTON — Barely a month into his presidency, Barack Obama has made it clear that the labor movement is back in vogue in Washington.

"I do not view the labor movement as part of the problem; to me it's part of the solution," he said at a recent White House event.

Seeing the writing on the wall, business groups fear that Obama and the Democratic-led Congress want to bring back costly ergonomics rules. They'd force companies to take steps to protect their workers from injuries caused by such things as heavy lifting and repetitive stress.

Those fears may be well-founded.

While the White House has yet to announce such a plan, Obama's choice for the next workplace sheriff is Rep. Hilda Solis, a California Democrat who joined the House of Representatives in 2001 and wasted no time in making ergonomics a top priority.

"In my district," Solis said in one of her first speeches on the House floor, "we have many constituents who work in a hard and unsafe manner, many of them working in sweatshops. Many of them work for big garment factories. They work 10 and 12 hours sewing materials, barely being able to lift up their heads. . . . The least that we can do is provide them with better protections in the workplace."

Solis, the daughter of immigrants and union workers, was angry that Republicans wanted to make ergonomic rules voluntary.

Ultimately, Republicans were successful in overturning the Clinton-era rules, and Solis offered her thoughts at the time: "It is shameful."

California is the only state that forces employers to take action, and there's already talk of using its ergonomics rules as a national model.

In its official list of policy priorities for 2009, however, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says that it will oppose any attempt to revive the ergonomics rules. Chamber officials regard an ergonomics rule as "the mother of all regulations," one that easily would cost businesses millions of dollars.

Before Obama and his new labor secretary can move on the issue, the Senate must confirm Solis. That vote could come as soon as Tuesday.

Solis, who has long ties to labor groups, is among the last Cabinet nominees who are awaiting votes, but the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has recommended her approval. Her nomination hit a bump in the committee, which delayed a vote after reports surfaced that her husband had been late in resolving a business tax lien.

No one cheered louder when Congress revoked the ergonomics rules in 2001 than the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The group had urged Congress to overturn the rules, arguing that they were too expensive and that it would be impossible to determine whether employees sustained their injuries at work.

Businesses still fear that they'd be legally liable for employee injuries that weren't of their making.

"Let's face it: We all go through things in our lives as simple as bad sleeping habits or exercise or recreational activities that would cause our bodies to feel discomfort," said Marc Freedman, the director of labor law policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington.

The rules that were overturned would have forced companies to redesign workplaces and employee tasks to avoid such things as musculoskeletal injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome.

Freedman said that most employers recognized that it was a good business practice to provide a safe and healthy workplace. He said that since 2001, most employers had moved voluntarily to find ways to increase the comfort of employees.

"And that's really the key word here," Freedman said. "It's all about comfort." He said that a new rule wasn't needed because workplace injuries had declined, adding: "It's no longer talked about like some type of epidemic."

Obama left little doubt where he stands on the issue during the presidential campaign.

In a written response to questions last year from The Charlotte Observer, a McClatchy newspaper, Obama said that many workers, including poultry workers, "are particularly susceptible to debilitating musculoskeletal injuries." He said that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration "must attack this problem with all of the tools at its disposal: regulations, enforcement, training and compliance assistance."

In the first week of his presidency, without specifically mentioning ergonomics rules, Obama said that he wanted to reverse "many of the policies toward organized labor that we've seen these last eight years, policies with which I've sharply disagreed."

Solis said nothing about the issue during her confirmation hearings, but she said in 2001 that it was clear that the nation needed ergonomics rules. "We studied this thing to death," she said.

With the exception of California, states largely have shied away from the idea of imposing their own rules. Labor officials are trying to make Michigan the second state with ergonomics rules, but business groups are urging otherwise, arguing that the economy is too weak to impose new regulations on companies.

In Washington, Freedman said the chamber had been mobilizing its members for another go-round over ergonomics rules, calling it "one of the cardinal issues of the labor portfolio." He said that Democrats and unions that lost the fight in 2001 were still "licking their wounds" and clearly were ready to battle again, now that they had a pro-labor president and a pro-labor secretary of labor.

"Stay tuned," Freedman said.

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