The federal government Friday said it would work to curb job-related repetitive-stress injuries by encouraging certain industries to set voluntary guidelines, a move immediately criticized for failing to protect workers.
The Labor Department said it could not be more specific on what the guidelines would be or what specific industries would be targeted since the final plan would be set later this year.
But Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said the new plan was better than the one implemented in the closing days of former President Clinton's administration, which was rejected in 2001 by Congress after the business lobby complained it was too costly to implement.
"This plan is a major improvement over the rejected old rule because it will prevent ergonomics injuries before they occur and reach a much larger number of at-risk workers," Chao said in a statement.
A key criticism of the Clinton ergonomics rule was that it provided injured workers on disability leave with 90 percent of their lost pay instead of two-thirds pay that is common in most state workers' compensation systems.
The government's new plan would aim at cutting the number of injuries, believed to be caused by repetitive tasks such as typing on a computer, through a number of targeted guidelines, tougher enforcement of these rules and better research.
John Henshaw, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, told Reuters the plan was the "absolute best approach to reduce injuries" because it will tailor guidelines to the specific needs of industries, unlike the Clinton plan, which he said tried a "one-size-fits-all" approach.
"Small businesses are already among the safest places to work," said Dan Danner, senior vice president of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, praising the new policy. "The way to make them even safer is to work with small-business owners in a helpful way, rather than playing an adversarial, threatening role."
But critics said the new plan favored companies rather than workers.
"This plan doesn't provide any protection for workers, it shows no commitment to protecting workers," said Peg Seminario, director of the AFL-CIO's Safety and Health Department. "It shows (the administration) are total business supporters," she said, adding that ergonomic injuries affected 1.8 million people every year and cost about $50 billion in lost wages and productivity and compensation.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, also said the new rules provided no protections for workers and was instead a "big win to big businesses at the expense of millions of average workers."
"If corporate CEOs were experiencing these injuries, instead of secretaries and cashiers, we would see a very different policy coming out of this administration," Kennedy said in a statement.
Union leaders questioned whether the Labor Department, which is facing budget cuts proposed by President Bush, has enough resources to adequately monitor and enforce job safety. Organized labor also plans to turn up pressure on Congress to provide better protection.
"After over a year of delay, the administration has today announced a meaningless measure that yet again delays action and provides workers no protections," said AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.
Henshaw conceded that OSHA has had little success litigating cases of ergonomics-related injuries under the agency's general duty clause, which requires an employer to furnish a workplace "free from recognized hazards" that could cause serious harm or death.
"I'm not here to criticize or argue the past," said Henshaw, appointed by President Bush and confirmed by the Senate last August. "We could do better. We can be more aggressive."
He cited a January settlement agreement with one of the nation's largest nursing home operators, Beverly Enterprises Inc., which agreed to adopt measures to reduce back injuries of workers who lift patients and residents. The agreement covered all of the company's 270 nursing homes, although the investigation, started in May 1991, stemmed from complaints at just a handful of facilities.
The agency also intends to designate 10 regional coordinators to focus on enforcement and outreach relating to workplace injuries. Education efforts include training grants, a new Web site and an advisory committee to identify areas that need attention. Also, a special effort will be aimed at Hispanics and immigrant workers, many of whom work in industries with high ergonomic-related hazard rates.
Ergonomics, the science of designing equipment in the workplace to reduce fatigue and discomfort, is at the heart of the debate over the cause and treatment of what scientists call musculoskeletal disorders, such as carpal tunnel syndrome or chronic back pain.
Workers who perform certain repetitive tasks, 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.