Are OSHA's Ergonomic Rules on Their Last Legs?

Employers are cheering as Congress prepares for a vote that is likely to repeal regulations intended to minimize the incidence of repetitive-stress injuries

Small-business owners worried about complying with broad new regulations designed to reduce workplace injuries may soon be breathing a sigh of relief. Spurred by business groups' intense lobbying efforts, Congress is poised to repeal the so-called ergonomics rules.

The regulations, which took effect in the final week of the Clinton Administration, would cover 102 million workers at 6.1 million job sites. A decade in the making, the regulations include requiring employers to post information about repetitive-stress injuries and correct hazards as they occur. If an employee is injured on the job and unable to work, employers must pay 90% of salary and benefits for as long as three months.

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), which is to begin enforcing the rules in mid-October, estimates that they would prevent 300,000 workplace injuries every year and reduce the 1.8 million injuries reported annually. But business groups insist the rules are far too costly and overly broad. "You can't have this type of drain on the economy and have the type of prosperity we've had over the last seven or eight years," says Giovanni Coratolo, director of small-business policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.


  Estimates of how much the regulations will cost vary widely, with OSHA figuring the burden on employers at roughly $4.5 billion a year. Business groups dismiss that number, insisting that implementation costs are likely to top $100 billion annually.

Dueling numbers aside, it now appears that advocates for companies both large and small are closer than ever to winning the fight against the regulations, which they have been waging for a decade. The Senate is expected to vote on a measure to repeal the rules this week, with Republicans insisting they have the necessary votes. If that happens, the House is likely to follow suit. And while President Bush has not yet taken a position on the regulations, Republicans say his support for repeal is likely.

Repeal of the regulations would mark a major defeat for labor groups, such as the AFL-CIO. It would also send OSHA back to square one in terms of writing protections for workers. That's because the Congressional Review Act -- the legislative tool being wielded by Senate Republicans -- would prohibit OSHA from reissuing ergonomics rules without substantial changes.

By Julie Fields in New York

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