KWAME HOLMAN: Since 1958, workers at the Maker's Mark Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky, have sealed bottles of their famous bourbon by hand-dipping them into wax. And according to a company spokesman, not one employee ever has complained of suffering a repetitive-motion injury. But the National Academy of Sciences says every year, some one million workers nationwide do suffer from performing the same job-related task over and over and over again. The result is lost wages, high compensation costs, and decreased productivity. This week in Washington, the debate over how best to prevent those types of injuries found members of Congress generally siding with their traditional bases: Democrats with labor...
SPOKESPERSON: Every year in this country, millions of hardworking Americans are injured on the job.
KWAME HOLMAN: ...Republicans with business.
SPOKESMAN: Any employer that doesn't care about their employees is not going to be in business very long.
KWAME HOLMAN: Following years of field research and weighing opinions on the problem, OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, issued new workplace rules last November designed to prevent repetitive motion injuries. President Clinton made them the law in January, four days before he left office. But yesterday, the Senate, acting on Congress' never- before-used authority to repeal executive branch regulations expeditiously, voted 56-44 to eliminate those regulations.
SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: Destroying this standard would put many workers at risk.
SENATOR: Small businesses can be shut down because of the costs of these regulations.
KWAME HOLMAN: The House acted today.
SPOKESMAN: The gentleman from Georgia.
KWAME HOLMAN: Georgia Republican Charlie Norwood charged the new rules put an unfair burden on employers.
REP. CHARLIE NORWOOD: OSHA has made it nearly impossible in this rule for an employer to claim that injury is not work-related. Any MSD injury, no matter how caused, no matter how caused, will be considered work-related if work makes it hurt. Think about that. Instead of creating an ergonomics regulation that helps employees and employers prevent repetitive stress syndrome, OSHA has created a rule that makes employers responsible for softball injuries.
KWAME HOLMAN: Kentucky Republican Anne Northup said the rules would prove too costly.
REP. ANNE NORTHUP: The worst thing we can do as a government is to create regulations that would be so high in cost that they would push our best jobs outside of this country.
KWAME HOLMAN: But two California Democrats stood up and charged Republicans had misplaced their priorities.
REP. LOIS CAPPS: The lives of workers who suffer from disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, or back injuries are changed forever. Many workers lose their jobs, are permanently unemployed, or forced to take severe pay cuts in order to keep working. This injustice must end.
REP. GEORGE MILLER: What is taking place here today here is not terribly complicated. It's pretty straightforward. It's an unapologetic assault on some of the hardest-working men and women in this country. It's an assault on the right to be pain free in their job. It's an assault on the right not to be injured on their job, and it's an assault on the right to provide the wherewithal for their families because the workers who suffer these workplace injuries lose wages, they lose hours, and they lose jobs.
KWAME HOLMAN: Northup of Kentucky responded with a personal story.
REP. ANNE NORTHUP: My daughter, who works for UPS from 4:00 AM to 8:00 AM in the morning, actually had two of these braces on her hands, and she suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome. And it's a credit to the company. They do every single thing they can in terms of job rotation, in terms of remediation, and in remedying this problem. How dare we - how dare we act as if we don't care about these workers?
KWAME HOLMAN: In fact, many members came forward with their own stories to tell.
REP. STEPHANIE TUBBS JONES: I'm worried about my mother, 80 years old, who folded boxes for a company. Her hand looks like this. I've said this on the floor before. It's like this because she can't move it as a result of repetitive motion of folding the box. Let's make the argument that instead of just saving money for companies, we might save the healthcare costs for all these or stuck like this, from doing repetitive motion.
KWAME HOLMAN: However, early this evening it appeared House Republicans would duplicate the feat of their Senate colleagues and attract enough Democratic votes to ensure elimination of the workplace rules. President Bush is expected to sign the repeal.
REP. CHARLIE NORWOOD: This ergonomics regulation simply can't be salvaged as written. This must be sent back to the drawing board, and that's what this debate is all about. That's what this vote is about. This is a bad rule. Let's begin again and get it right.
REP. JACK KINGSTON: We're not pulling out the rug on worker safety. This is saying there's still going to be federal worker protection law. There will be state worker protection laws, there will be all kind of insurance in business premises, rules and regulations... I know it's hard for some people to understand, but you know what? There are business owners and entrepreneurs who don't want their employees hurt.
KWAME HOLMAN: And that's the category in which Maker's Mark places itself. The company says it rotates its bottle sealers into other jobs every hour, and doesn't let them return for at least four hours. And it appears, for now, a majority in Congress is willing to let other businesses deal with the problems of repetitive motion as they see fit.