08 December 2009

U.S. Seeks To Curb Workplace Injuries


Rules forcing employers to minimize the risk of repetitive-stress injuries with more than $4 billion a year in workplace improvements may be moving closer to being revived, eight years after corporations fended off the proposal.

The Obama administration Monday proposed requiring companies in the U.S. to keep more extensive records of ergonomic-related injuries, according to a Labor Department regulatory agenda. The move may repave the way for workplace-injury regulations that were nullified by President George W. Bush and a Republican Congress in 2001 amid opposition from companies.

"This is going to be what employers view as the first shot across the bow on the ergonomics front," said Brad Hammock, a lawyer at Jackson Lewis LLP in Reston, Va., who advises companies on how to comply with workplace regulations.

While the proposal doesn't reinstate the original Clinton-administration rules, it may lead to a revival of the ergonomics issue in a different form, Hammock said. The AFL-CIO, the largest federation of labor unions, pushed for today's proposal at its annual convention in September, and in documents it gave President Barack Obama's transition team to guide them on labor issues after he was elected in November 2008.

The reporting requirement, subject to public comment before taking effect, will "provide useful information to employers" and "help them identify these injuries," said Peg Seminario, director of occupational safety issues at the AFL-CIO.

The new rules could pave the way for new workplace furnishings like ergonomic work benches.

The original Clinton administration ergonomics rules issued in 2000 were intended to spare 460,000 worker injuries and save $9.1 billion in health-care costs. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's largest business lobbying group, said at the time that the rules would cost employers much more than the $4.2 billion a year estimated by the government. The group said today that the Obama administration should expect a fight.

"Ergo regulations brought the business community together in the same way that the card-check" union organizing bill prompted companies to spend millions of dollars to kill, said Marc Freedman, director of labor law policy at the Chamber. "If they go forward with a new ergonomics proposal, it will have the same kind of rallying impact on businesses as card-check, because it could impact a broad range of companies."

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said she was planning 90 new rules in her regulatory agenda for the coming year. "When people hear the word regulation, they feel stifled, delayed, and many times they believe government is being intrusive," Solis said in a video posted on the department's Web site. Her goal is to "level the playing field for businesses that play by the rules," she said

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