Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Ergonomic Injuries: Now You See 'em, Now You Don't

Throughout the decade-long campaign against a federal ergonomics standard, the business community and Republicans in Congress have had one major problem. The could rant about big government and rave about the Gestapo OSHA and regulations and international competitiveness and lazy workers and corrupt union bosses, but they could never get away from the fact that MSDs (ergonomic injuries), amounted to a full third of all injuries and illnesses suffered by American workers.

Until now, that is.

On Monday, OSHA announced that it had decided not to put a separate column for MSDs on the log that employers are required to use to record workplace injuries and illnesses. The revoked requirement -- for employers to check a box for MSDs -- was a simple measure issued in 2001, designed to help employers and workers identify and address ergonomic hazards. A similar requirement -- a column to log repeated trauma -- had been in place since 1971. The administration also decided not to develop a definition of MSDs (which had also been included in the 2001 regulation) and leave it up to employers to figure it out for themselves.

In its decision, OSHA stated that the agency had
concluded that an additional recordkeeping column would not substantially improve the national injury statistics, nor would it be of benefit to employers and workers because the column would not provide additional information useful to identifying possible causes or methods to prevent injury."
Translation: Eat my shorts, working people. If you can't count 'em, they don't exist.

According to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney:
Today's decision continues the Bush administration's dangerous "head in the sand" approach to ergonomic injuries. Just because the government is not going to require employers to track these injuries, and just because the government is not going to enforce a safety standard, doesn't mean that workers will stop becoming ill or permanently disabled on the job. Cutting off all information about MSDs exposes the Bush administration's "comprehensive approach" as meaningless.
Well, actually, Bush's "comprehensive approach" (voluntary guidelines, research, enforcement and compliance assistance) was exposed as meaningless a long long time ago.

Or maybe not. The bottom line on this announcement is that employers will find it more difficult to report MSDs (or easier not to report MSDs). The numbers will go down, the "comprehensive approach" will be hailed as a success and we can all just stop whining and get on board.


Let's start thinking about fighting back.

Repeal of OSHA's ergonomics standard in March 2001 was one of the first high crimes of the Bush administration. Being among the first, however, also means that it risks being forgotten (There have been so many more crimes since then.) Let's not let that happen.

You may have heard that there's an election coming up next year where Bush will try to get reelected. I propose a campaign (or we could just start with a button) with the simple theme "Remember Ergonomics" Then workers wearing the buttons show up at every Republican campaign event. The political tide will turn and our long national nightmare will at long last be over!

Well, at least we can make sure it's an issue that won't be forgotten.

Is there anyone creative out there who wants to design a button? Any rich union health and safety departments? I'll even front some money to pay for the first batch.

According to the statistics (back when they meant something) roughly three and a half million workers have suffered ergonomic injuries since Bush signed the repeal of the ergonomics standard. Let's do it for them and for the million and a half who will suffer from preventable MSDs this year and every year until we have some real protections.