Bush Repeals OSHA Ergonomics Mandate

Published June 1, 2001

In a private ceremony on March 20, President George W. Bush signed legislation to repeal what he termed “an unduly burdensome and overly broad regulation”—the Ergonomics Program adopted in late 2000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

“The ergonomics rule would have cost both large and small employers billions of dollars and presented employers with overwhelming compliance challenges,” explained Bush in a written statement. “Also, the rule would have applied a bureaucratic one-size-fits-all solution to a broad range of employers and workers—not good government at work.”

S.J. Res. 6, the legislation Bush signed, was introduced by Senator Don Nickles (R-Oklahoma) on March 1. The measure represented the first-ever application of the Congressional Review Act (CRA), passed five years ago as part of the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Flexibility Act. The CRA allows Congress to review new regulations and eliminate those it deems too burdensome or inconsistent with Congressional intent.

S.J. Res. 6 stated simply,

“Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that Congress disapproves the rule submitted by the Department of Labor relating to ergonomics (published at 65 Fed. Reg. 68261 (2000)), and such rule shall have no force or effect.”

The resolution passed the Senate on March 6 by a vote of 56-44. It passed the House on March 7 by a vote of 223-206, clearing the way for Bush’s signature on the measure.

Impact Sorely Underestimated

OSHA defines ergonomics as the science of fitting the job to the worker. The agency’s proposed ergonomics rules would have required employers to eliminate or materially reduce conditions in the workplace that might lead to carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, and back injuries.

OSHA spent eight years analyzing the potential economic impact of unfunded health care mandates, including ergonomics rules, on the business community and state and local governments. Nevertheless, the agency was unable to estimate with any accuracy the anticipated total cost of its new Ergonomics Program. The estimates it did offer were low compared to forecasts prepared by other governments agencies and the private sector.

D. Mark Wilson, research fellow at the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation, offered one explanation for why OSHA’s estimates were so low: The agency missed some important costs the new rules would impose.

“The impact of the proposed ergonomics rules on private and public sector employees is not limited to higher costs,” Wilson wrote in a June 2000 Heritage Backgrounder. “Because the proposed rule is filled with undefined words and phrases, employers will a difficult time implementing and complying with the rule.”

Wilson continued, “Workplace changes required by the new rule could force both private and public-sector managers to reopen collective bargaining agreements or face possible penalties for failure to take corrective action. The ergonomics rule also had a real potential to expand state workers’ compensation systems, greatly increasing both the number of claims and the rate of fraud.”

The Independent Insurance Agents of America (IIAA) agreed with Wilson’s assessment, especially with respect to the potential impact of the ergonomics rules on state workers’ compensation systems. The OSHA program would have set federal compensation rates higher than what workers receive in most states for non-ergonomic injuries. Under the new OSHA rules, workers would have received 90 percent of their weekly pay. Most states mandate 66 percent of pay for work-related injuries.

More Research Needed

While Bush has shown more sympathy to the business community than did his predecessor, his rejection of the Ergonomics Program nevertheless left open the door for future efforts on behalf of workers.

“The safety and health of our Nation’s workforce is a priority for my Administration,” Bush said in his March 21 statement. “Together we will pursue a comprehensive approach to ergonomics that addresses the concerns surrounding the ergonomics rule repealed today.”

Bush’s position on the OSHA rules—generally, that more research is needed before a cost-effective ergonomics policy can be adopted—is supported by a 1998 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study.

The NAS report noted, for example, that repetition, force, and vibration in the workplace all contribute to upper extremity injuries. But the study also found psychological factors—low job satisfaction, monotony, and high job stress—are also associated with those injuries. The NAS report concluded wider data collection is necessary to get a complete picture of the cause-and-effect relationship between work task and worker injuries.

For more information . . .

D. Mark Wilson’s Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1376, “OSHA’s Ergonomics: A Costly Unfunded Mandate for the States,” is available on the Heritage Web site at http://www.heritage.org/library/backgrounder/bg1376es.html.

The National Academy of Sciences report, “Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders: A Review of the Evidence” can be read in its entirety online at http://www.nap.edu/books/0309063272/html/index.html.