November 22, 1999
The Labor Department proposed new
rules meant to prevent repetitive-stress and heavy-lifting injuries.
Correspondent Gwen Ifill discusses the workplace ramifications of the
rules with Assistant Secretary of Labor Charles Jeffress, National Association
of Manufacturers vice president Pat Cleery and AFL-CIO director Peg
IFILL: Each year, nearly two million U.S. workers experience work-related
musculo-skeletal disorders. Known in shorthand as MSDs, these injuries
usually result from overexertion and repetitive motion. Almost one-third,
or about 600,000 of the repetitive stress injuries are serious enough
to require time off the job. That's according to the U.S. Department of
Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, better known as
OSHA. Today, in an effort to remedy what the government says is a growing
problem, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman unveiled OSHA's new ergonomic standards.
ALEXIS HERMAN, Secretary of Labor: When employees are hurt on the job, employers have a responsibility to act. And this is why the proposed ergonomics standard isn't just about another rule or another regulation. It is about helping real people suffering real problems, problems like back injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis -- not minor aches or pains, but serious, life-altering injuries. More than one-third of the most critical on-the-job injuries are the result of overexertion or repetitive motion.
GWEN IFILL: Ergonomics is defined as the applied science of equipment design, intended to reduce operator fatigue and discomfort, or as OSHA puts it, the science of fitting the job to the worker. OSHA says a bad fit between workers and the equipment they use causes about one-third of all workplace injuries. Under OSHA's new proposal, about 1.6 million employers would be required to implement a basic ergonomics program that includes assigning someone to be responsible for ergonomics; providing information to employees on the risk of injuries, as well as signs and symptoms to watch for; and setting up a system for employees to report those signs and symptoms.
In turn, the proposal would require that employees who experience MSDs receive a prompt response and evaluation of their injury and follow-up health care. Plus, workers who need time off could get 90 percent of their pay and 100 percent of their benefits. The guidelines would target jobs where workers perform repetitive tasks. Workers on an assembly line at a poultry processing plant, for example, reach repeatedly to grab the birds. Others work at a fast pace to cut the chickens into pieces. Delivery people as well as package handlers lift and sort heavy packages all day. And office workers who sit at computer workstations may experience disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Twenty-seven million U.S. workers would be covered under the proposed rules, but the agriculture, maritime and construction industries would not be affected.
|A step in the right direction|
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Jeffress, what evidence does the government have that makes this such a big deal that this has to happen today? Why?
JEFFRESS, Administrator, OSHA: The information that employers report
to us, the numbers, two million American workers being hurt, are basically
what employers report to the Labor Department as to what's happening
in their workplaces. And they're spending over $20 billion a year in
workers' compensation payments for these people who are being hurt --
again the employers' own data.
GWEN IFILL: You say you've been talking to employers about this for some time. Were they not listening? Were they not stepping up to the plate?
CHARLES JEFFRESS: Many employers have put good programs in place, and this proposal that we have today is based on the successful experience of many employers. We need to take what the best of American business is doing and spread it to the rest of American business.
GWEN IFILL: Peg Seminario from the AFL-CIO, you think this is generally a good idea?
PEG SEMINARIO, AFL-CIO: Definitely. It's definitely a step in the right direction. We've been pushing for workplace ergonomic standards for a basically decade. And it was nine years ago that Elizabeth Dole, then secretary of Labor, promised American workers that they would be protected. And nine years later we're at the point of the proposal. We do have some concerns about it. As you said earlier, the standard does not cover workers in construction, agriculture or maritime, who have very serious problems.
GWEN IFILL: That seems like a pretty big loophole.
PEG SEMINARIO: It is a big omission. It is a very big omission. And we hope to bring the evidence to the Labor Department that these workers should be covered so when the final rule is issued that all workers will be covered.
|A wait-and-see approach|
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Cleary, you represent the business interest in this, the manufacturers. I just asked Mr. Jeffress whether that maybe employers had not been listening. Have employers been listening?
PAT CLEARY, National Association of Manufacturers: Yeah. Let me spend a minute if I can on who we are. We're 14,000 people who make things in America and there are 18 million employees. We're virtually in every state in America. I'm proud to say that our members spend mightily on health and safety every year because they understand one central premise, which is that safety is good business. And they spend a lot on safety, some of the best ergonomics programs, I'm also proud to say, are from our member companies.
But there's a central flaw here and that is that there is no scientific -- or no consensus in scientific or medical community about the causes of ergonomics injuries. That was true yesterday and it's true today. There was a study that was funded by Congress and the administration -- the administration agreed to it last year to the tune of $1 million which is still a lot of money to us -- to look at the causes of ergonomic injuries. That study won't be done for another year yet by the National Academy of Sciences, very well respected, above reproach. We have bought into that study. We have said let that happen, let it run its course. And once we find out from them what they believe the causes of this are, we ought to be able to move forward. And what's happened is these guys still want to regulate before that study is in, and we think that's a mistake.
GWEN IFILL: Why don't we wait on the study and find out what it tells us?
JEFFRESS: You know, on the one hand Pat says that his member companies
are spending lots of dollars, millions of dollars in ergonomics programs.
And, on the other hand, he tells us there's no science to prove it works.
In fact, your members won't be spending this money if they weren't getting
benefits from it. And you know that. These programs work, and the investments
are being benefits for the employers that have them. Our studies show
that about 18 percent of employers nationwide have these programs. A
lot of others have done simple things, a chair here, a work station
solution there. We're trying to get all employers that have problems,
where someone is hurt, to put a program in place to address their employees'
GWEN IFILL: Who gets to decide.
PATRICK CLEARY: What I would say is the graph that you put up with the czar in each workplace and this whole big span of control looks to us like big government. Our members do what's right whether OSHA existed or not. Our members do what's right in the workplace because it's good business and will continue to. They don't need this one- size-fits all regulation. I know Charles believes that this allows for some flexibility. We don't see it that way. We think they've ought to wait until they have the science before they regulate
|Saving money or health|
GWEN IFILL: Ms. Seminario, I want to ask you about cost. The Small Business Administration says this will cost $18 billion. OSHA says that it would cost $4.2 billion. Do you come down in the middle or on either side of that?
SEMINARIO: We actually think that the standard, when implemented, will
save employers money. If you look at the experience in the workplace
from those employers who are dealing with these problems, what you consistently
see is that the workers' compensation costs associated with these injuries
are just massive, which is why employers take action or some employers
GWEN IFILL: But it will save -- it will regulate the injuries, not the hazards, that is, not the conditions which create the injuries, isn't that true?
PEG SEMINARIO: That is again one of the problems that we have with the rule is that it is triggered after a worker is injured, after there is actually a diagnosed work-related case. And so what that means is that prior to that injury occurring, even if there are clear hazards, the employer is not under an obligation to address them. So, again, we think this is a problem and we intend to bring the evidence to OSHA to have the rule strengthened so that workers can be protected.
GWEN IFILL: OK. Mr. Jeffress, that's two questions for you. Why are the numbers all over and why not regulate the hazard as well as the injuries?
JEFFRESS: First on the numbers, if you look at the claims of people
who say this is going to cost a lot more money than what OSHA has estimated,
most of those claims are based on fears that their productivity will
slow down, they'll have to slow down their assembly line or that people
won't be as efficient. In fact the opposite is true. We had 90 different
examples from 90 different companies today talk about where they put
programs in place. By reducing the stress on the worker it has actually
made that worker more productive. And these companies are saving money
by reduced workers' compensation costs for the injuries and by increased
productivity on the part of the workers.
CLEARY: Gwen, if I may, on the cost estimate, the $18 billion estimate
came from his administration. It came from the Clinton administration.
That's not our number. But we'll happily accept that number. And I think
it's a good and an accurate number.
|Doing the right thing|
SEMINARIO: I think the facts speak for themselves. If employers were
doing the right thing, we wouldn't have 600,000 workers suffering serious
injury, workers being disabled. We heard the same arguments from the
industry on asbestos. We don't have enough science, we shouldn't go
forward, it's going to shut the industry down. We heard the same arguments
on vinyl chloride, on benzene, on lead.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Jeffress, why were the agriculture, maritime and construction industries, which would seem to be a big part of the problem, if there's a problem, why were they exempted in these rules?
CHARLES JEFFRESS: Over the past 10 years OSHA has a lot of experience in manufacturing operations and service sectors like nursing homes, hospitals and looking at solutions that people have put in place. We have a lot of information, good science on this now. There have been studies by the National Academy of Sciences, by NIOSH, by the Government Accounting Office, all showing that these ergonomics programs make sense. And OSHA has a lot of experience in general industry, if you will. So, we're going forward with the proposal now that applies to the areas where we have most experience. We also have a study funded to look at maritime and what are the ergonomic issues in maritime industries.
GWEN IFILL: Will you wait to that study comes out before you come up with the rules?
CHARLES JEFFRESS: The NIOSH is doing that; within two years we'll have our proposal. But, you know, the studies have been done in general industry.
PATRICK CLEARY: But they're all over the board. The studies are all over the board, and I would say this. I would dare say that I've spent as much time on an assembly line on the business end of an assembly line than just about anyone making cars and glass bottles.
GWEN IFILL: Certainly more than anyone at this table.
PATRICK CLEARY: And what I know is that a very small percentage of the people there develop a problem, call it carpal tunnel, MSD, whatever you want. And a very large percentage do not. I don't know why that is. The NAM (National Association of Manufacturers) doesn't know and OSHA doesn't know. And until they do, they ought not pass a regulation with an $18 billion price tag.
PEG SEMINARIO: That's a specious argument.
PATRICK CLEARY: That's reality. That's what it's like.
PEG SEMINARIO: That's a specious argument. You can say the same thing about asbestos and lung disease, tobacco. Not everyone who spokes develops cancer again, the same arguments we've heard for over 30 years.
PATRICK CLEARY: Nor the science -
PEG SEMINARIO: So what? We shouldn't have regulations on asbestos, because not every worker develops asbestos. We don't know why that is --
PATRICK CLEARY: Why not wait till the study is completed. What's the rush to regulation? The studies he mentions are all over the board. That's true. There are studies but there are some on their side and some on his side. Let's wait for one final study that we all agree to, the administration and us. Let it be done for $1 million and see where the chips fall.
CHARLES JEFFRESS: They'll never do one final study. What we do know is that workers are under great stress -- when you work in very awkward postures, exert too much force, there's a greater chance of their getting hurt. What this standard does says put a program in place to reduce those pressures so people are less likely to get hurt and tailor it to your workplace. That's what this says.
|The plan might backfire|
|GWEN IFILL: Is there a possibility that employers faced
with these new rules that they consider to be onerous might be less inclined
to hire people who they consider to be at risk, whether it's women who
they don't think can lift heavy boxes or whether it's older people who
they think might suffer more quickly from repetitive stress injury?
CHARLES JEFFRESS: Actually, the experience has been that employers, when they identify problems that are potentially hurting one worker put those solutions in place. They make everybody more productive. So, we don't expect to see any reduction in hiring. Certainly in this labor market that this administration has helped create, in this booming economy, we have to use every worker that's out there.
GWEN IFILL: The same question to you, Mr. Cleary, is there a chance of this backfiring in that way?
PATRICK CLEARY: Absolutely. I will agree with Charles to that extent. The No. 1 problem our members face right now is finding and keeping workers at all and at least skilled workers. That is hard for our folks out there. To the extent that there are judgment calls I think it will be very hard for our folks with this regulation looming out there. More than that, I want to say, you know, 10,000 of our members are small to medium employers. This is going to kill small employers and going to put them out of business. And let's not do that. Let's not pass an $18 billion cost on to them until we're absolutely sure we've got the science.
GWEN IFILL: Is this National Academy of Sciences study were to be released next year and it proves Mr. Jeffress right, would you embrace it with open arms?
PATRICK CLEARY: Then we will work with him on the regulation to make sure it comes out in a way that is going to be constructive for workers everywhere. If he will agree to work on the regulation, I think we can work together on that. Absolutely. Why not do it?
PEG SEMINARIO: We've already had one NAS (National Academy of Sciences) study. There was an NAS study that looked at the exact same questions. It was a curve study. It was not a survey. It was a study that they brought in experts, they looked at all the evidence in this area and they reached the conclusion that workplace factors cause these injuries and that they can be prevented. The industry didn't like the results of that study so they went to their Republican friends in the Congress and got another study asking the exact same seven questions. But this year they said it had to be 24 months, which brings us beyond the Clinton administration. The study is basically just being used as a way to delay a regulation, to delay protection for workers. We'll get the same answers from the NAS-2 that we got from NAS-1.
PATRICK CLEARY: That was a one-day meeting. We think this is a more in-depth study.
GWEN IFILL: We're going to have to leave this fight there. Charles Jeffress, Pat Cleary, and Peg Seminario, thank you all very much.
PATRICK CLEARY: Thanks.
CHARLES JEFFRESS: Thank you.