Case Overview, OSHA's Proposed Ergonomics Standards

This document provides background information and summarizes the debate over OSHA's proposed ergonomics standards. The links to the left will lead you to public documents that we have found.



          Ergonomics is the science of work-related musculoskeletal disorders. An example is carpal tunnel syndrome—the repetitive stress injury common among those who type at the computer all day. In recent years the number of reported work-related injuries has totaled about 200,000 annually. More broadly an estimated 1.8 million workers complain of some kind of pain due to their jobs. The number of injuries is actually declining and workplace rules designed to relieve physical stress due to particular motions are largely responsible. Ergonomics is not an exact science though. As one observer noted, "Pain is felt differently by different people. You’re trying to quantitatively measure this, but it’s a matter of people telling you it hurts here."

          When the Clinton administration proposed new regulations to force employers to take steps to reduce the chance of injuries on the job, business lobbies unleashed a concerted counterattack to try to stop them. Sympathetic Republicans in the Congress were successful in attaching a rider to a series of appropriation bills to forbid the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) from implementing the proposed rules. The Republicans asked for a study from the nonpartisan and highly respected National Academy of Sciences (NAS), mandating a moratorium on new ergonomic regulations pending completion of the research.

          When the Republicans failed in their attempt to renew the moratorium in 1998, OSHA took the opportunity to prepare the final regulations and then issued them in late 2000, during the waning days of the Clinton administration. It was a significant victory for organized labor and a serious defeat for business lobbies.

          The victory for labor was short-lived. Using a heretofore obscure law, the Congressional Review Act, Republicans in Congress were able to force a vote on the regulations in March, 2001. Critically important was a provision in the law that prohibited a filibuster in the Senate, which kept the Democrats from stopping the vote. On a largely party-line vote, both the House and Senate voted to repeal the regulations. President Bush later signed the bill into law and the OSHA ergonomic regulations were completely invalidated.



          The main protagonist pushing for the regulations was the AFL-CIO. Organized labor has always been interested in job safety, believing that employers place insufficient emphasis on protecting their workers from accidents and repetitive stress injuries. The problem is that there are significant costs associated with making the workplace safer: buying equipment, for example, or reducing the amount of lifting each employee does, possibly reducing productivity. Litigation brought by labor was instrumental in getting the first Bush administration to initiate research that was intended to serve as a basis for ergonomics regulations.

          Business lobbies became fully mobilized once OSHA moved to issue ergonomics regulations. The National Coalition on Ergonomics was formed to coordinate the assault on OSHA. Composed of 300 members, it included both trade groups and individual corporations. The large business peak associations, notably the National Association of Manufacturers and the Chamber of Commerce made the ergonomics regulations a major focus of their advocacy.

          A number of Republican legislators became highly involved in trying to stop the regulations. Reps. Anne Northrup of Kentucky and Ray Blunt of Missouri worked with the business coalition. Tom DeLay (TX), the influential Republican Whip in the House, was also a major help to the ergonomics opponents. On the Senate side, Missouri Republican Kit Bond was a key player. Organized labor looked to its Democratic allies on the labor committees in each house. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) was a strong supporter of ergonomics regulations. At OSHA there were many people working on this, including OSHA’s director, Charles Jeffress.




          Labor and OSHA have an easy time documenting workplace injuries since they’re reported to employers, though business disputes the origins of many injuries. More difficult to document conclusively is how much of the various pains workers complain about can legitimately attributed to work. The ergonomics proponents are helped by a strong evidentiary base in the research that’s been done. “There’s been 2000 studies,” said one OSHA official. The preponderance of evidence in those studies indicates that various kinds of work-related activity cause stress, pain, and debilitating injuries to employees who do their work correctly—that is employees who lift, carry, pull in a conventional manner.


          Business’s main line of attack was that OSHA was exaggerating the problem. A lobbyist for a trade group said, "Our main argument is that OSHA hadn’t done its job in terms of science. They looked at the science but they cherry-picked the things [that confirmed their thesis]."

          A second line of attack was the cost of the regulations. OSHA estimated that the remedies required under the new ergonomic regulations would cost industry just $4.8 billion. Business groups ridiculed this estimate. United Parcel Service (UPS) said that the new rules would cost it alone $20 billion initially and $5 billion annually. OSHA responded that business groups grossly exaggerated costs by basing their calculations on the most expensive solutions possible and then assuming that the agency would mandate the use of those solutions. (The regulations did not specify the exact remedies to be used.)


          After the Clinton administration issued the regulations business appeared to have a serious impediment in getting the regulations changed. A new administration can’t simply invalidate regulations it doesn’t like. Administrative rulemaking is a legal process, bound by a requirement that new regulations be supported by evidence. They must be formulated according to the dictates of the Administrative Procedure Act and more general rules of law. For the Bush administration, replacing the Clinton rules with new regulations would require OSHA to begin a new round of rulemaking. That would have taken a couple of years at least and those new rules would also have to withstand the legal challenges that would be brought immediately by the AFL-CIO. If new ergonomics rules were based on evidence that starkly contradicted the data used to produce the rules during the Clinton administration, they would be suspect and might have trouble standing up in court.

          Owing to the difficulty of changing the regulations through the regulatory process, revoking the regulations through legislation proved to be a much more practical alternative. Now it is organized labor that faces the uphill battle. Some ergonomic regulations will probably be forthcoming from the Bush-run Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Yet any such regulations are likely to be a pale reflection of the Clinton-OSHA rules. Labor has very few options, but if the Democrats recapture the Congress in 2002, greater pressure can be applied to OSHA and some modest improvement in safety standards may be forthcoming. Unions will continue to push for greater workplace improvements in collective bargaining agreements, but this does little for employees of nonunion companies.



          The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was created in 1970, pulling together existing programs aimed at the workplace, but gaining additional power to regulate offices and factories. It is part of the Department of Labor. The ergonomics regulations were formulated under its general rulemaking authority. In the Congress, the primary committees with jurisdiction over this area are the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.


Lobbying Activities and Tactics

          Organized labor made no secret of its desire for a stronger federal government presence in the workplace. It devoted considerable resources to lobbying OSHA and the Congress on these regulations. The AFL-CIO and its constituent unions are the backbone of the Democratic party and have been critical to the party’s successes in recent years. Many saw the finalized ergonomics regulations as a parting thank you gift from the outgoing Clinton administration.

          Business was no less active and it worked the Congress assiduously with a large army of lobbyists. Industry trade groups mobilized their member companies asking them to contact their members of Congress. The National Beer Wholesalers Association told its 1700 members in a fax that "every time one of your warehouse employees bends to pick up a case of beer, you’re violating the proposed standards."

          Business was so strident in its opposition that some wondered if it should have made more of an effort to compromise and work with OSHA, especially after congressional Republicans failed to get a renewal of the moratorium against ergonomics rulemaking in 1998. Cost estimates by business were so exaggerated that industry groups lost credibility with moderate Republicans and with those from districts with high concentrations of labor union members. Fortunately for business, George Bush won the presidency and Republicans retained control of the Congress.