WASHINGTON (PAI) – The Occupational Safety and Health Administration will roll out five new rules this year designed to protect workers on the job – but a rule to curb ergonomic injuries will not be one of them.

As a matter of fact, the form OSHA has employers fill out to report job health and safety ailments won’t even have a separate column for ergonomic ills – also called musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) – until Jan. 2012, OSHA staffers predict.

The disclosures about ergonomics and the new rules were in an online dialogue between OSHA staffers and the public on Jan. 5.   The OSHA dialogue was one of several run by Labor Department agencies when it released its semi-annual regulatory agenda, showing new rules agencies plan to work on in the coming year.

OSHA’s five new rules would cover confined spaces in construction, general working conditions for shipyards, electric power transmission, hazard communications, and standards improvement, OSHA staffers told AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario, who posed the question.

“We also anticipate publishing finals for several whistle-blower regulations.  In addition, we estimate publishing a proposed rule for silica,” they told her.  They gave no details.  And a rule on combustible dust is still in the works – four years after a dust-caused explosion in a Georgia sugar plant killed workers.

OSHA may roll out other rules proposals, as did other agencies on Jan. 5, but ergonomics won’t be one of them.

After a decade of work and delays due to business pressure, in the closing days of the Clinton administration, OSHA announced a rule designed to curb ergonomic injuries.  Those injuries – sprains, strains, repetitive motion injuries, thrown-out backs from heavy lifting and more – total in the hundreds of thousands yearly.

Curbing such injuries is a key concern for the labor movement, but business bitterly hated OSHA’s ergonomics rule.  It successfully lobbied the GOP-run Congress in 2001 to make repeal of the rule the very first law President George W. Bush signed.  

The Obama administration is not about to resume the fight, OSHA staffers told questioner Chris Bryant.  “Are there any plans to re-propose any part of the ergonomics rule?” he asked.  “Thanks Chris, the answer is no,” the staffers replied. Instead, the agency is shifting to pushing industry to put in place plans to prevent job injuries and illnesses before they occur, OSHA Director Dr. David Michaels, a public health specialist, explained at the start of the chat.

“OSHA’s proposed regulatory initiative, the Injury and Illness Prevention Program proposal, will help employers to set up a process to ‘find and fix’ workplace hazards,” Michaels said. 

“This agenda continues to build upon (Labor) Secretary Hilda Solis’ regulatory strategy of ‘plan, prevent, protect,’ and solidifies the agency’s commitment to strengthening the worker’s voice in the workplace,” he said.

“Improving access to information establishes a solid foundation for making workplaces safer.  In particular, OSHA is focused on improving worker awareness of the health and safety risks posed by hazardous chemicals,” Michaels added.

That’s why OSHA will change its hazard communications standard, Michaels said.  It wants to get injury and illness data out to workers and the public more quickly – and it wants business to communicate hazards more clearly to workers, he noted.

It also plans to start work on rules governing two construction hazards, one rule covering backing operations and the other dealing with working conditions in “reinforcing and post-tensioned steel construction.”  The construction industry is a high-risk industry and OSHA wants to keep reducing the deaths and injuries there.

But Dave LeGrande, the Communications Workers’ safety and health director, said he expects strong business opposition to the injury and illness prevention program.   “It’s been characterized by business types as ‘backdoor ergonomics,'” he explained.  “They’re crazed about it.”  The Mine Safety and Health Administration also is exploring an injury and illness prevention rule, its regulatory agenda said.

Unions were hoping OSHA would roll out its injury and illness program early in 2011, but pressure has already pushed it to late in the year, LeGrande added.   That could slide even further as the new GOP-run House Education and the Workforce Committee – renamed from Education and Labor – demands documents and hauls Michaels, Solis and other officials up to Capitol Hill for hearings and criticism.

Besides OSHA’s proposals, other proposed new workplace rules include: Requiring employers to notify workers of their rights to the minimum wage and overtime pay and “to provide information regarding hours worked and wage computation,” and ordering health and pension plan service providers to give plan administrators – unions and firms – information about the providers’ fees in ways that let the administrators decide if the fees are reasonable and if there are conflicts of interest or not.



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. TambiƩn es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).