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$5-billion OSHA ergonomic regulations repealed by Congress

Mississippi business backs Bush’s ergonomics rules

Mississippi business leaders are applauding the actions of the U.S. Congress that repealed ergonomics regulations instituted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

“We say a big, big thank you to Congress,” said Ron Aldridge, state director, National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB). “It would have been probably the costliest regulation ever imposed on small business in America. The number one concern of our members is the cost of health care, and the ergonomics regulations were right up there with the health care issue in terms of concern.”

Aldridge said repeal of the regulations was one of the biggest victories achieved in terms of being able to protect small businesses from the continued growth of unfunded government mandates.

OSHA had argued that its ergonomics standards were necessary to protect workers’ health, and that the benefits of the program would have outweighed costs. OSHA had estimated it would have cost U.S. business about $5 billion to comply, or about $150 per employee per year.

Business groups had argued the cost of compliance would have been far higher and potentially crippling. For example, UPS said the cost of complying would be double the amount of their annual net income.

Congress already overturned OSHA ergonomics rules once, and the agency came back later with another set of regulations that business leaders said weren’t substantially different. OSHA apparently intends to continue to try to address the problem despite the second thumbs down from Congress.

“I intend to pursue a comprehensive approach to ergonomics, which may include new rulemaking, that addresses the concerns levied against the current standard,” said Elaine L. Chao, Secretary of Labor. “This approach will provide employers with achievable measures that protect their employees before injuries occur. Repetitive stress injuries in the workforce are an important problem. I recognize this challenge and want you to understand that the safety and health of our nation’s workforce will always be a priority during my tenure as Secretary.”

Business leaders have said they aren’t against taking steps to protect workers from repetitive stress injuries. But they saw significant problems with the way OSHA was going about it. Aldridge said portions of the rules were so ridiculous that the program came to be called “ergo nonsense.”

For example, he said that OSHA’s response to potential problems with lifting injuries for a soft drink delivery driver was to hire an additional employee.

“Going from one to two people is doubling the workforce overnight,” Aldridge said. “We can’t find workers now. And OSHA’s response to solve lifting problems is to hire another employee? That’s one of our positions where it was nonsense.”

Business groups also feared that the program could have ended up making businesses pay for workers’ outside injuries. For example, if a worker was injured working in the yard at home, came to work and had the injury worsen, the employer would bear the costs although the worker’s outside activities were primarily to blame.

Aldridge was also offended by the idea that employers don’t care about their workers. He said there is a lot of camaraderie between business owners and employees, and the in the current tight labor market, employers can’t afford to treat employees without respect.

“Our employers are going to do whatever it takes to take care of their employees,” he said. “Small businesses are going to protect the interest of keeping their employees as best they can because they can’t afford to lose a good employee. You can’t replace them. The work pool isn’t out there. When the federal government says you aren’t taking care of them and so you have to comply with a large amount of paperwork, it is pretty insulting to our folks and even to the employees of small business, as well.”

John Baas, director of industrial relations, Mississippi Manufacturers Association (MMA), agrees that with the shortage in the workforce employers are doing everything they can to keep workers safe, healthy and on the job. Baas said MMA members are aware of the need for good ergonomics, and will continue those efforts voluntarily.

“There are a lot of things people are doing voluntarily,” Baas said. “I don’t think people are resentful of working to comply with the rule only to have it overturned because everything they did will be beneficial to their workforce. But employers as a whole were relieved when the rules were repealed by Congress. I think employers will continue to try to eliminate these types of injuries hoping if we do a good enough job policing ourselves that further heavy-handed federal regulations won’t be needed.”

Baas said employers were concerned with the extensiveness of the program. For example, if one person on the workforce reported a cumulative trauma disorder, it triggered a requirement for a full, written ergonomics programs.

Another problem seen was that injuries covered under the ergonomics regulations received higher benefits than other types of injuries.

If an ergonomics injury forced someone off his or her job, the employer was required to pay up to 90% of the worker’s pay for 90 days.

Most state workers’ compensation programs provide two-thirds of pay while off the job.

Baas said the higher pay with ergonomics injuries would have provided less incentive to get back to work. And he questioned whether it was fair, for example, for someone with a broken arm to draw two-thirds of his or her salary while someone with a sore wrist could draw 90%.

Many types of businesses, not just manufacturers, would have been affected by the regulations. Data processing businesses in particular would have been affected. Baas said the state’s gaming industry would have been strongly impacted by the regulations.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com or (228) 872-3457.

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