Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Obama Admin Blocks Two Workplace Safety Regulations, Pleasing Big Business

February 3rd, 2011 | Mike Elk

Mike ElkLast month, President Obama wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for “a government-wide review of the rules already on the books to remove outdated regulations that stifle job creation and make our economy less competitive.”

The announcement by Obama to eliminate burdensome regulation was seen as dramatic tilt to the right for the White House, which is increasingly pro-business. Others, though, dismissed the move as mere posturing that would not seriously affect workers. But since calling for the regulatory review, the Obama Administration has done away with  several proposed workplace safety regulations that have upset worker safety advocates.

Earlier this week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration  announced it was delaying (or stopping, as many advocates claimed) implementation of a set of proposed regulations on ergonomics. Work-related musculoskeletal disorders remain the leading cause of workplace injury and illness in this country,” stated OSHA Chief Dr. David Michaels in a press release. “However, it is clear that the proposal has raised concern among small businesses, so OSHA is facilitating an active dialogue between the agency and the small business community.”

The proposed regulation would have forced firms to count ergonomic injuries—also known as musculoskeletal disorder injuries (MSDs)—in statistics provided to OSHA . The push to merely count ergonomic injuries as part of workplace injury statistics was considered to be the compromise over regulating ergonomic injuries more broadly. Advocates had tried to bring tougher Clinton-era workplace safety laws, but settled on counting the MSD injuries as the compromise.

Workplace advocates hoped that being able to point to companies where a high amount of workers were suffering from ergonomic injuries would allow them to hold companies accountable. Now they will lack even the ability to shame corporations using government-published statistics.

Ergonomic injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome and strained backs are agrowing problem, as more Americans wind up working in offices. Federal data shows that MSDs injuries “accounted for 28 percent of all workplace injuries and illnesses” that forced workers to miss time from the job.

Previously, there had been regulations on the books during the Clinton Administration to at least monitor and to offer minor protections to workers from such injuries. However, in 2001, a Republican-led Congress eliminated most ergonomic regulations. This was followed by eliminating the counting of ergonomic injuries by the Bush-era OSHA in 2003.

Many labor observers say OSHA’s decision not to regulate MSD workplace injuries shows that the Obama administration is slowly shifting away from its focus on tougher regulation of workplace safety. The decision to delay implementation of rules to regulate MSD workplace injuries follows a decision in mid-January by OSHA to write a rule regulating extreme noise on the job, which affects the hearing of many who work in the construction and manufacturing industries.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the National Association of Manufacturers had advocated against the proposal and in a letter to the new chairman of the House oversight committee, Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.), called for celebrating its demise. As chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Issa has threatened to investigate such regulations, which has scared many administration officials who do not want to get caught in bureaucratic wrangling.

Those in the business community saw the defeat of these two regulations as a sign of their growing influence with the Department of Labor and OSHA. “We hope that these first two steps are a signal to the business community, and employers in general, that OSHA will ‘stop, look and listen,’” Joe Trauger, vice president of human resources policy for the National Association of Manufacturers told the Hill newspaper.

People in organized labor are upset about the proposed regulation being withdrawn. “All of these actions are coming because of the November elections and the fierce business opposition to anything,” said Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s director of health and safety. “Just because the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups scream doesn’t mean there is a legitimate reason to retreat. There are real negative impacts here that can harm workers.”

The ability of corporate forces to stop the implementation of these rules may signal the ability of big business to block or water down other rules protecting workers. One has to wonder: Will the elimination of such regulations actually save any jobs, as the president seems to believe? Or will their elimination hurt workers’ lives?

*This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on Feb 3, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer who has worked for the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers, the Campaign for America’s Future, and the Obama-Biden campaign. He has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and NPR, and writes frequently for In These Times, Huffington Post, Alternet, and Truthout.

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