Ergonomics-regulation Decision Already Made?

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao will soon decide whether to issue new rules on workplace ergonomics, a Labor Department representative said Wednesday. The same day, however, a leading newspaper-industry environmental expert said that his information suggests Chao has already decided not to issue any regulations in the controversial area.

Donald Hensel, manager of environmental services for the Newspaper Association of America, said at its technology SuperConference here that sources within the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have told NAA that “the new ergonomics policy is going to be that there is no ergonomics policy.”

But R. Davis Layne, the deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, told the same gathering that Chao has not yet reached a decision on ergonomics — but will very soon. “The approach Secretary Chao is taking to any regulation is that they be incentive-driven … flexible … and realistic,” Layne said.

Newspapers have an enormous stake in the shape of ergonomics regulations, which could affect the workplace practices of thousands of workers they employ to load preprints into inserting machines, edit copy at computer workstations, and hoist bundles into delivery trucks. Last year, Congress canceled a 600-page set of OSHA regulations, implemented in the final weeks of the Clinton administration, that would have covered virtually every general-interest daily and weekly paper in America.

As an industry, newspapers have a rate of workplace injuries and illnesses that is “well below” the average of U.S. businesses, Layne said. He also portrayed an OSHA still trying to escape its rigid past, which led to such baffling measures as a requirement for “split-front” toilet seats: “In the early 1970s, we made a lot of errors — and we’re still paying for it.”

Despite OSHA’s more flexible rules, Layne said vigorous enforcement remains a priority for the agency even with a new presidential administration. OSHA has budgeted for about 36,000 workplace inspections in 2002, a slight increase, year over year.

One newspaper that got caught in a surprise inspection last year was The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “Our attitude towards enforcement [of workplace rules] has really changed as a result,” said Peg Schmitz, vice president of print operations for Gazette Communications. Ultimately, Schmitz said, the paper was cited for improper “lock out/tag out” procedures while servicing a machine and fined a little more than $1,000.

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