Sunday, December 10, 2006

Hawpe: Workplace Safety Should Be On Congress' s Agenda

Louiville Courier Journal columnist David Hawpe has a good idea. Newly elected Congressman John Yarmuth (D-KY) is going to make a speech next week on "expectations for the Democratic majority in Congress" and Hawpe wants him to talk about workplace safety issues. It's an important issue with so many major assembly lines and distribution facilities in Louisville, and coal fields throughout Kentucky.

But beyond the obvious manufacturing and mining hazards, Hawpe would like to hear Yarmuth talk about the "unfinished business" of ergonomic hazards. You remember ergonomics, don't you? That was the standard that the Clinton Administration issued after 10 years of effort through Republican and Democratic administrations -- that was then repealed by the Republicans Congress and new President in 2001. Since then we've not only failed to see any new ergonomics standard, but Elaine Chao's Labor Department has been far more busy withdrawing regulations than issuing any -- except under court order.
After this year's spate of mine tragedies, it's a little easier to convince folks that working conditions in the coal industry must be improved.

But the mention of ergonomics still elicits a yawn or a giggle from all too many, including those who think such injuries occur in the kitchen or around the house, not on the job.

During 2004, the last year for which Bureau of Labor Statistics are available, there were 402,700 reported musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) cases that resulted in lost work days. And such cases constitute the biggest category of lost work days -- almost one-third of worker injuries and illnesses.

Not only that, but occupational illness and injury are, by almost everybody's account, grossly underestimated, maybe by as much as 69 percent.

The union safety advocates say, "A combination of too few OSHA inspectors and low penalties makes the threat of an OSHA inspection hollow for too many employers. More than 8.5 million workers still are without OSHA coverage."

And ergonomics reform remains unfinished business.
Hawpe has been a consistent champion of workers and workplace safety and health, calling coal "an outlaw industry" following the Sago mine tragedy. One thing that Hawpe doesn't mention in this column is that Yarmuth won his seat by defeating Congresswoman Anne Northup. Northup was on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, which determines OSHA's budget. She was a strong enemy of ergonomic standards earning great praise from business associations in 2000 for introducing legislation that "would prohibit OSHA funds from being used "to promulgate, issue, implement, administer or enforce any proposed, temporary or final standard on ergonomic protection."

And finally, Hawpe has excellent taste in blogs:
There's an excellent blog called Confined Space that collects information about, and comments on, such topics. It recently ran a piece entitled "What the next Congress has in store of workplace safety."

The final item said, "Business associations have been busy sending out alarms that the sky is falling, fearing that Democrats will try to push national ergonomics standards and force OSHA to scale back its voluntary programs."

So my question for John Yarmuth when he speaks to his fellow Ivy Leaguers is whether the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Federation of Independent Business have anything to worry about.
Finally, if you have a question you'd like him to ask Yarmuth, he asks you to e-mail him at But why stop there. This is a good idea for reporter to start asking all newly elected Congress types (as well as the old ones) before they start the new session of Congress. Send your questions to Hawpe, but put them in the comments below as well.

Go crazy.