Food Engineering

Congress repeals ergonomics regulation

March 22, 2003


In a surprise move last month, Congress employed a little known law to overturn the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) Ergonomics Program Standard. The same law prohibits OSHA from issuing another similar rule unless Congress gives the agency special permission.

Issued by OSHA in November, the standard contained workplace rules intended to prevent injuries resulting from repetitive motions or strenuous lifting. It also required U.S. businesses, including food companies, to have an ergonomics safety program in place by November 2001.

However, scores of businesses and industry groups complained that the standard was unwieldy, vague and confusing. Some companies also contended that the cost of complying with the standard would force them out of business. Indeed, industry groups estimated that compliance would cost U.S. businesses as much as $100 billion to implement, compared to OSHA's estimates of $4.5 billion in compliance costs averaged against an annual savings of $9 billion in health care, compensation and other costs.

Members of the U.S. House and Senate used the 1996 Congressional Review Act (CRA) to overturn the standard, which was issued in the final days of the Clinton Administration. Under the CRA, Congress can pass a joint resolution of disapproval of regulations, even if the regulations are already in effect. Passage of a repeal requires only a simple majority of votes.

The Senate voted 56 to 44 to rescind the standard on March 6 following a day of fierce bipartisan debate on the issue. The House followed suit in a narrow vote held the next day. President Bush completed the repeal process with his signature,with the White House stating the regulations would cost billions of dollars while providing uncertain benefits. Reaction to the repeal was split along partisan lines, with Representative Henry Bonilla, a Texas Republican indicating that the repeal had saved small businesses "billions of dollars that mean fewer layoffs, less pay cuts and economic growth." However Senator Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader, criticized the repeal, saying "Men and women across this country will be injured, will be crippled, because of the pressure for this quick political victory." Meanwhile three Democratic Senators -- Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Barbara Boxer of California and Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland -- held a press conference to say that the repeal was a slap in the face to women, who hold the majority of repetitive jobs, including typing.

Calling the ergonomics regulation "possibly the worst rule ever put out by the federal government," the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) lauded the repeal as "a triumph of reason and common sense." NAM president Jerry Jasinowski said the association's members "have some of the best ergonomics programs in the country, and we welcome the chance to share what we've learned with OSHA and the Department of Labor in order to develop effective ergonomics measures."

American Meat Institute (AMI) president J. Patrick Boyle echoed Jasinowski's sentiments, calling the reversal a "clear victory for flexible, common sense approaches to worker safety and health." He said that Voluntary Ergonomic Guidelines developed in 1990 by the U.S. meat industry, OSHA and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) contained "flexibility and specificity to our industry" lacking in the Ergonomic Standard.

Before the repeal, Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao vowed to "pursue a comprehensive approach to ergonomics that may include new rulemaking" if the rule was overturned. She also indicated the approach would "address concerns levied against the current standard."