To Create Guidelines
by Jonathan Yarowsky
NATO Washington Counsel
the past several years, workplace safety issues and
specifically, so-called ergonomics issues
have received periodic but intense attention from Congress
and the executive branch. Several years ago, few would have
predicted that the rather arcane term ergonomics
would become an ideological divide on the scale of environmental,
tax and medical prescription drug funding issues.
Ergonomics is essentially the practice of arranging
the workplace to prevent muskuloskeletal injuries that are
caused by repetitive motions in the discharge of work functions.
On Nov. 14, 2000, after lengthy partisan debate in Congress,
and in the face of strong opposition from industry groups,
the Office of Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued
its final rule for workplace ergonomics affecting most employers
in the United States, including theatre owners. The new
rule was to take effect on Jan. 16, 2001, and employers
were to begin providing basic information to employees by
Oct. 14, 2001. At that time, employers were expected to
establish a workplace system to receive and respond to employee
reports of muskuloskeletal disorder (MSD) signs and symptoms.
Action: Upon assuming office last year, President George
W. Bush moved quickly to delay the implementation of a number
of regulations that were issued in the waning days of the
Clinton administration. Among those regulations were the
ergonomics rules issued by OSHA. Not only did this hold
on implementation provide the new administration with time
to review and consider whether to repeal the rule, it also
permitted the then-Republican-controlled Congress time to
develop a plan to change or outright repeal the new rules
swiftness, a number of Republicans in Congress moved to
introduce a resolution (S.J. Res. 6), aimed at repealing
the rule outright. Specifically, S.J. Res. 6 applied an
obscure 1996 law the Congressional Review Act (CRA)
that provides Congress with the opportunity to repeal
federal rules within 60 days of their publication. The CRA
also prohibits the future issuance of a new regulation that
is in substantially the same form as the regulation
that Congress overruled. The resolution strongly
opposed by labor unions and supported by business groups
passed both the House and Senate by close margins
and was signed by the president on March 20, 2001, becoming
the fifth enacted law of the new administration.
supporters of the repeal then moved to the next phase: pressing
the Department of Labor to issue new regulations. Several
bills were again introduced, requiring the Department of
Labor to issue narrower ergonomics rules. But
the 107th Congress then experienced a sudden jolt with the
departure of Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.) from the Republican
party. The resulting changes in Senate leadership and committee
chairmanships inevitably slowed down what seemed to be an
inexorable drive to compel new regulations. To date, none
of the bills introduced has seen movement in either house.
In addition, while labor secretary Elaine Chao has held
hearings on the issue, no formal regulatory action has occurred.
recently, hearings on ergonomics have been held by the House
Education and the Workforce Committee and by the Senate
Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee.
At those hearings, deputy labor secretary John Henshaw said
that the department would develop industry guidelines
on ergonomics, rather than use official regulations. While
that idea did not receive a warm reception by either Republicans
or Democrats, OSHA has nonetheless moved forward with its
own efforts to create these guidelines. At the same time,
a mark-up of a bill introduced by Sen. John Breaux (D-La.)
S. 2184 (requiring new guidelines) is scheduled
in the Senate HELP Committee.
the ergonomics debate (a debate that reflects much more
than a new policy disagreement on workplace regulations)
will continue and, in a sense, mirrors the parties
own attempts at self-definition during a time of great political
fluidity in the domestic policymaking arena.