March 7, 2001 (Washington) -- After a heated debate pitting labor against Republicans, the House followed the Senate's lead and voted Wednesday to repeal a controversial Clinton administration rule aimed at curbing repetitive motion stress injuries in the workplace. The House vote, closely mirroring party lines, came as no surprise and clears the way for President George W. Bush to finalize the repeal. Senate Republicans passed the resolution against the Clinton rule late Tuesday.
The so-called ergonomics rule, which was scheduled to take effect in October, would have been one of the most sweeping regulations governing the workplace, affecting more than an estimated 1 million workers.
The 600-page rule would have forced companies to alter their workstations, redesign their facilities, or change their tools and equipment if their employees suffered work-related injuries from repetitive motions. The rule also would have required in part that disabled workers receive more compensation than is provided for by many state compensation laws.
The rule was the product of a 10-year effort by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to prevent musculoskeletal disorders at the workplace, such as carpal tunnel syndrome or chronic back pain. It was based upon the science of ergonomics, or the designing of workplace equipment to accommodate workers who perform repetitive tasks, such as typing on a keyboard.
Republicans said the rule was too costly. They added that the repeal of this legislation would allow for a new rule-making process that would be more responsive to the needs of both big and small businesses.
"In fact, by jettisoning this burdensome and unworkable standard, we will be eliminating a roadblock to consideration of more reasonable approaches," said Sen. Jim Jeffords, (R-Vt.), a staunch opponent of the OSHA rule.
Rep. Charlie Norwood, (R-Ga.), argued that repealing the ergonomics rule was not a strike against workers, "it's repealing a bad rule."
OSHA estimated the cost to employers at about $4.5 billion a year. OSHA also estimated that businesses would save approximately $9.1 billion a year in lost worker productivity.
Republicans said the actual cost would top $100 billion a year. This figure was derived by a coalition of more than 250 businesses, which contended that OSHA failed to account for all the possible outlays.
Democrats defended the original OSHA estimates.
"It isn't the Department of Labor talking about $4 billion worth of expenditures, it's about the Department of Labor talking about $4 billion worth of savings," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, (D-Mass.), a leading defender of organized labor.
Kennedy said that repealing the rule would threaten the rights of working Americans.
"Instead of helping hard-working Americans, this resolution is a big thank-you to big business for all their support. It's politics at its worst. And it leaves average American workers defenseless against today's workplace injuries," Kennedy said. "Let America's workers be on guard. Your rights and your dignity and your hard work are no longer respected."
Democrats also said that the resolution essentially would prevent OSHA from ever adopting an ergonomics rule because the Department of Labor would now have to seek the approval of Congress to pass any such rule.
The repeal resolution was introduced in the Senate using a little known and never-used congressional power called the Congressional Review Act. Under that act, Congress is empowered to review and reject by vote any administration rule that would cost more than $100 million to implement.
But in a letter to Jeffords, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao assured him that she would continue to address this problem.
"Let me assure you that in the event a Joint Resolution of Disapproval becomes law, I intend to pursue a comprehensive approach to ergonomics, which may include new rule making," she wrote. "Repetitive stress injuries in the workplace are an important problem."
Business leaders also tell WebMD that they would support a watered-down version of OSHA's current ergonomics rule.
"No business would purposely harm their employees," Peter Eide, director of labor law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, tells WebMD.
Eide says that businesses would like to see Chao pursue a new rule as long as she based it in part upon a recent report by the National Academy of Sciences, which called for additional studies.
"The fact that they [OSHA] spent 10 years doing it doesn't mean that it's a good rule," Edie says.
Now that the House has passed the resolution, President George W. Bush is all set to finalize the repeal, a move he reportedly supports.
But labor unions have been mounting an aggressive effort to turn the tide.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told The Associated Press that the Senate vote was "a naked payoff to big business contributors who have opposed every effort to enact a standard protecting workers."
Since early March, the AFL-CIO has sponsored a number of news conferences to highlight that the rule would not only affect business workers but also people such as Diane Moriarity, a secretary for the New York City Board of Education.
Moriarity, 60, suffers from several crushed disks in her back, frozen shoulders, and pain in her hands. She says the injury occurred because the computer provided to her by the BOE was bolted down to a desk, forcing her to use the keyboard in her lap and turn her head to face the computer monitor.
Moriarity still works for the BOE, but says that she would have quit if the school where she works didn't finally agree to buy her a new chair and workstation at the urging of her union, the United Federation of Teachers.
"I wanted to work. I love my job," Moriarity tells WebMD. "The sad thing is that the BOE is now doing the same thing to other people."