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Bush Administration

In what appears an almost calculated move to demonstrate its disdain for worker health and safety, the Bush administration yesterday revoked a requirement that employers keep records on ergonomics injuries.

The rule would have required employers to check a box on their workplace injury and illness log if an employee suffered an ergonomic injury. Ergonomics injuries include repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

Issued by Bill Clinton’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on his administration’s last day in office, the rule was immediately suspended by the Bush administration.

Two years later, the Bush OSHA has concluded that checking a box is too much to ask of employers.

“OSHA concluded that an additional recordkeeping column would not substantially improve the national injury statistics,” says OSHA Administrator John Henshaw, “nor would it be of benefit to employers and workers because the column would not provide additional information useful to identifying possible causes or methods to prevent injury.”

Fancy that.

Throughout the 1990s, a controversy raged in Washington over issuance of a rule to require employers to address ergonomics hazards. Heavily lobbied and funded by UPS and other employers whose workers continue to experience an epidemic of ergonomic injuries, Republicans repeatedly included appropriations riders which prohibited the Clinton administration from issuing such a rule. The Clinton administration didn’t fight too hard to advance the rule — even though there is widespread public understanding of the severity and extent of ergonomics injuries, and an eagerness to prevent them.

The Clinton administration finally issued its ergonomics rule at the end of its second term, along with dozens of other postponed regulations. As with virtually all of those last-minute regulations, the Bush administration suspended the ergonomics rule, and then revoked it. Voluntary measures would be enough, the Bush guardians of worker well-being said.

All that was left was the reporting requirement, which the administration now has quashed on the grounds that it wouldn’t do much.

It is true that a mere reporting requirement wouldn’t mandate workplace changes to reduce ergonomic risks, though that’s a strange argument for an administration that eliminated regulations that would have mandated such risk reduction.

And although its impact would have been modest, a reporting requirement would have helped alert employers to hazardous workplace conditions, and it would have provided better national data.

The administration apparently wants neither of these things, since they might impel action by individual employers and the federal government.

Anyone who has experienced the agony of a repetitive stress injury, or knows anyone who has, can appreciate the folly and cruelty of this approach.

“Just because the government is not going to require employers to track these injuries, and just because the government is not going to enforce a safety standard, doesn’t mean that workers will stop becoming ill or permanently disabled on the job,” notes AFL-CIO President John Sweeney with disgust. Sweeney calls the administration’s rule revocation evidence of a “head in the sand” approach to ergonomic injuries.

Every year, roughly a million people in the United States suffer from workplace-related musculoskeletal disorders (mostly ergonomics injuries) so severe they must take time off from work, according to Peg Seminario, director of occupational safety and health for the AFL-CIO. That’s twice the number actually reported by employers. The canceled ergonomics rule — not the reporting requirement, but the rule actually requiring employees to reduce ergonomics hazards — was projected to avert half of those injuries, she says.

In fact, the injuries are so frequent and serious, Seminario says, that employers who take steps to avert them have rapid payback in worker’s compensation savings.

The “arguments in the political arena are totally contradicted by the experience in the real world of the workplace,” she says. Employers “see that by taking fairly straightforward steps they can significantly reduce and in some cases eliminate these injuries. In six months or a year, they’ve got their investments paid for, because these injuries are so costly.”

“But the ideology and the opposition to regulation [has been] stronger and [has] trumped the economic reality,” she says.

The stomped-out reporting requirement is just the latest manifestation of the ideological campaign against rules to protect workers in the United States.

More than 5,000 U.S. workers die annually from traumatic injuries, and nearly 60,000 from occupational disease.

These tens of thousands dying every year — along with the millions suffering workplace injuries annually — are the victims of unbridled corporate violence, aided and abetted by government officials and Members of Congress who, as Sweeney says, choose the head in-the-sand approach.

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor, and co-director of Essential Action. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999.)

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