The Bush administration has created a stir with its new workplace safety policy. Whether you cheer or jeer depends upon which side of the workplace coin you’re on.
The Bush administration recently announced its new workplace safety policy, which is creating controversy by emphasizing the voluntary effort of employers to curb work-related injuries. Business advocates and Republicans believe the policy is a fair one since it will not put undue financial strain on business owners. According to their own estimate, U.S. businesses have saved themselves $120 billion, which is the amount industry advocates believe an earlier policy would have cost. Labor groups and Democrats say the Bush policy is an ineffective gesture that will do little to reduce workplace injuries.
The Bush administration’s workplace safety policy addresses injuries that result from repetitive movement such as lifting, typing and bending. Believed to hurt an average of 1.8 million American workers a year, these injuries include sprained necks, backaches and carpal tunnel syndrome. The policy arranges for the government to work with several industries to develop guidelines to help reduce ergonomic injuries. It urges other industries to take voluntary steps to curb their problems. Industries with high rates of injury that do little to improve their record will have actions taken against them by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Near the end of its term, the Clinton administration had put forth an ergonomic safety policy that was later repealed by Congress under the early Bush administration. Under the Clinton policy, companies would have been required to have workers with ergonomic injuries examined by a doctor and implement reforms if more than one worker suffered ergonomic injuries in a period of under 18 months. The policy also would have required employers to pay 90% of injured workers’ salaries for up to 90 days. Business groups estimate that the Clinton policy would have cost industry $120 billion while the Labor Department places the estimate at $4.5 billion.
According to John L. Henshaw, the director of OSHA, the Bush policy is better suited to address safety problems because it’s more adaptable to specific industries. “We know that one size does not fit all,” he said. “This approach provides the flexibility needed to reduce these injuries.” Henshaw did not say which industries would be watched closer, but warned that industries that failed to reduce injuries would be subject to enforcement actions by OSHA. Workers in the automotive, meat packing and parcel delivery industries have been known to suffer higher rates of ergonomic injury. The policy is more specific regarding curbing dangers faced by Hispanic workers, promising efforts to reduce the overly high injury and death rates among this group.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Democratic leader of the Senate Labor Committee, expressed dissatisfaction with the new policy. “Once again, the administration handed a win to big business at the expense of millions of average workers – especially women – who risk workplace injuries every single day,” he said. Jackie Nowell, the United Food and Commercial Workers’ safety director, said that the policy doesn’t provide any concrete measures to address safety problems. Additionally, union safety officials questioned the effectiveness of the voluntary measures, believing that most companies would avoid setting safety guidelines for fear of being singled out for enforcement if they don’t meet their own standards. Supporters of the Bush policy have said that to encumber all industries with the same regulations would be unfair. Finally, the National Coalition on Ergonomics said they believed the policy was the “right approach to ensure workplace safety.”
Sources: Bush Seeks Voluntary Steps by Industry to Reduce Work Injuries
New York Times, April 6, 2002
Different Approaches on Ergonomics
New York Times, April 6, 2002