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White House Will Leave Job Safety to Employers

Workplace: Bush plan urges firms to adopt OSHA guidelines. Sites in California already are under stricter state rules.


WASHINGTON — The Bush administration announced Friday that it would issue voluntary guidelines to reduce the risk of repetitive stress injuries on the job rather than force employers to take corrective action.

The decision, coming after strong lobbying from businesses opposed to mandatory regulations, will have little effect in California, where workplaces already are subject to compulsory ergonomic rules. But in most other states, employers will be encouraged--not required--to protect workers from such risks as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis and back injuries.

Under the new procedures, which reflect the administration's commitment to voluntary regulation, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration will craft safety guidelines for particular industries and jobs. It will urge companies to adopt them or devise their own plans.

Labor groups, which have been at odds with businesses over the issue, criticized the strategy Friday as ineffective in helping workers.

"Today we've got an announcement that contains no enforceable regulations, relies totally on voluntary actions and does not even identify the industries that OSHA will focus on," said Peg Seminario, director of the AFL-CIO's safety and health department. "What it demonstrates once again is the Bush administration's allegiance to its corporate supporters and contributors and its disregard for workers."

Administration officials said their approach would provide the flexibility that employers need to take the right action for their businesses. "We know one size does not fit all," said John Henshaw, OSHA's administrator.

The Bush administration opted not to pursue mandatory regulations, Henshaw added, because there is "a lot of uncertainty" about the science of musculoskeletal disorders and what work functions trigger them.

Occupational musculoskeletal disorders can affect muscles, tendons, joints, nerves and related soft tissues anywhere in the body but most often in the lower back and arms.

Repeated use of the same muscle or tendon may result in injury or inflammation. The results have been called cumulative trauma disorder, repetitive motion injury, repetition strain injury and occupational overuse syndrome.

These disorders affect a wide array of employees: construction workers and secretaries, farm workers and meatpackers, postal sorters and deliverers. They result from a variety of activities, including hand harvesting, sewing, typing, lifting heaving objects and operating machinery in factories.

The administration's voluntary approach will replace the mandatory one adopted by the Clinton administration but overturned by the Republican-controlled Congress shortly after President Bush took office last year.

The workplace rules will test the administration's claim that voluntary regulation works best in a wide range of arenas.

For example, rather than regulating emissions, Bush's new global-warming plan asks businesses to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas produced from human activity. On Friday, the administration announced that the Boston Housing Authority had voluntarily committed to make nearly 700 fully accessible public housing units available to residents with disabilities.

Business groups, which feared the high costs of complying with the Clinton rules, applauded the Bush administration for giving employers flexibility to develop their own approaches to curb workplace injuries.

But labor unions blasted the administration for leaving workers defenseless from injuries that force at least 600,000 of them off the job each year and cause pain to a million more.

When Congress overturned the Clinton workplace safety regulations last year, the Bush administration said it would come up with a substitute--possibly including some mandatory regulations. Bush's father, former President Bush, promised during his term in office to implement mandatory regulations, but business groups lobbied so hard against them that it took until the end of the Clinton administration before any were adopted.

As part of its new plan to reduce workplace injuries, OSHA, which is part of the Labor Department, also intends to crack down on employers that break existing laws regarding workplace hazards. Employers implementing ergonomic guidelines will not be targeted in these enforcement efforts, Henshaw said.

In 1997, California adopted the nation's first ergonomic standards, which require all employers to evaluate work sites and make sure they do not present risks of injury. Employers also must train employees and control their exposure to activities that could cause repetitive motion injuries. If two workers doing the same task are injured within a 12-month period, state officials inspect the workplace and can issue citations.

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