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Guest Columnists

Administration To Unveil New Ergo Policy In September

Don Fulsom
CRE Website Reporter

July 2, 2001

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao has promised to develop a "comprehensive" ergonomics policy by September, after she listens to all sides of the controversial issue. "Defining the best approach for ergonomic injuries is not a simple process and we need everyone's voice heard," Chao declared in announcing she will convene three national public forums on the issue in July.

Chao says the new policy should:

  • put greater emphasis on preventing injuries before they occur;
  • be based on the best available science, and on cooperation between OSHA and employers;
  • recognize the costs of compliance to small businesses;
  • include short, simple and common sense instructions.

Labor Department spokesman Stuart Roy declines to speculate about whether Chao might propose a new ergonomics rule, or perhaps seek a voluntary solution. "She's going into this with an open mind," he tells CRE. Asked whether the department is currently doing anything to formulate a new ergonomics policy, the spokesman responds: "We're mostly at the information-gathering stage now. We're not trying to come up with language for a possible regulation, or anything like that."

Roy points out, however, that department lawyers are carefully studying the language of a congressional measure that repealed OSHA's Clinton-era ergonomics regulation. Signed by President Bush in March, the measure would invalidate any future rule that is determined to be in "substantially the same form." Roy says the solicitor's office at Labor is trying to arrive at a legal definition of that term.

In signing the repeal, Bush said he was scrapping "an unduly burdensome and overly broad" regulation. The action was a major defeat for organized labor—which had fought for an OSHA ergonomics regulation for more than ten years.

The repealed rule required employers to change work stations, or jobs, for workers complaining of ergonomic injuries. It also required employers to pay for medical treatments.

Businesses estimated the annual price tag of the regulation at $100 billion, though the government put the cost at 4.5 billion.

Since the president signed the repeal, Democrats have taken control of the Senate—significantly altering the political dynamics of the ergonomics issue.

The first Labor Department forum will be held July 16 and 17, 2001 at George Mason University in the Washington, D.C. area. The others are set for Chicago on July 20, 2001 and Palo Alto, California on July 24, 2001. The forums are designed to help develop a universal definition of injuries caused by repetitive motion and stress. Those wishing to make public comments should consult the Federal Register of June 22, 2001—or visit OSHA's Web site (—for complete information.

In related news:

President Bush has created a 13-person workplace advisory panel that will include labor, business, government and academic members. The Council on the 21st Century Workforce—to be appointed by the president—will advise Labor Secretary Elaine Chao on changing workplace trends, especially where worker skills are involved. A presidential executive order issued June 20 also sets up an Office of the 21st Century Workforce within the Labor Department. The office's role includes finding ways to "eliminate statutory and regulatory barriers to assisting the workforce in successfully adapting to the challenges of the 21st century." For details, visit the White House Web site (

A study published in the June 12, 2001 issue of the journal Neurology finds that heavy computer use, even up to seven hours a day, does not increase a person's risk of getting carpal tunnel syndrome. The study's author, Dr. J. Clarke Stevens of the Mayo Clinic, says the findings "are contrary to popular thought, but nobody has studied the problem carefully." He adds: "I'd like computer users to know that prolonged use of a computer does not seem to lead to carpal tunnel." More information is available at the Mayo Clinic's Web site (

Don Fulsom was previously a reporter for UPI White House.