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Industry, Labor Groups Clash at Ergonomics Forum
CRE Web site reporter Don Fulsom reports on the opening of the Labor Department's public forums on ergonomics. This is one in a series of articles on the politically volatile issue of ergonomics in the workplace.

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    A panel of business executives and doctors has told the Labor Department that carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive stress injuries are often not work-related and can be triggered by psychological factors, The testimony came at the first in a series of three department-sponsored public forums on how the government can best approach ergonomics issues in the workplace.

    Dr. Nortin Hadler of the University of North Carolina Medical School said the syndrome happened to only one person in 1,000 each year--adding that it "has nothing to do with what you did with your arm." Hadler said the chances of getting the syndrome is no greater for a woman who works in a meat-packing plant than it is for a stay-at-home mom.

    A Swedish researcher, Dr. Alf Nachemson, described back pains as a "part of life" and said there is no scientific evidence linking them to work-related activities. He also said workers with back pains should be discouraged from staying out of work on disability.

    Nachemson maintained that paid disability actually encourages workers to be injured, and that such injuries are often rooted in psychology--such as depression, job dissatisfaction or the fear of being laid off.

    Union officials sharply disputed the industry's claims. AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka said, "Every day that passes without (an OSHA ergonomics regulation), nearly 5,000 workers are hurt." And he blamed President Bush and business groups--declaring, "You're responsible for the pain, suffering and devastation to their lives."

    AFL-CIO Health and Safety Director Peg Seminario told the forum, "These injuries are not just the aches and pains of normal life." And she urged the department to "align with the mainstream of thinking on this issue."

    Labor Secretary Elaine Chao opened the forums by saying, "We want to find a way to prevent ergonomics injuries that will survive the expected torrent of criticism, litigation and congressional review." She asked participants to concentrate on three issues: defining ergonomics injuries, determining whether they are work-related, and developing steps the government can take to effectively reduce them.

    Chao has said she will decide by September whether to pursue a new ergonomics regulation or recommend voluntary guidelines. In March, in a move backed by President Bush, Congress voted to kill a Clinton-era ergonomics rule on the grounds it was based on poor research, and was too costly and impractical to enforce. Bush has vowed to address ergonomics concerns in a way that is less burdensome to businesses.

    As the first forum got underway, Chao warned that the failure of the Senate to confirm Labor Department nominees might delay her ergonomics policy decision. Nominees awaiting confirmation include John Henshaw to head OSHA, Emily DeRocco to be Labor's chief of employment training, and Eugene Scalia to be the department's solicitor.

    "Early on, I committed to moving expeditiously on ergonomics, and we have lived up to that commitment," Mrs.Chao said. "But with crucial nominees yet to be confirmed, it is becoming a real challenge."

    The first ergonomics forum was held at George Mason University near Washington, D.C. The two others are set for July 20 at the University of Chicago and July 24 at Stanford University in California.

    The Clinton ergonomics rule would have cost businesses $4.5 billion a year, according to OSHA. Industry officials estimated that cost at $100 billion.