OSHA has stepped up enforcement of health and safety laws since Obama took office, hiring more inspectors, issuing more citations and increasing penalties for employers who violate federal standards.
But the fight over musculoskeletal injuries has been raging since 1979, when OSHA began to research the issue. After 20 years, the agency created rules that were enacted in the final days of the Clinton administration.
In 2001, Congress invoked the rarely used Congressional Review Act to overturn the rules. Under the act, the executive branch is forbidden from proposing similar regulations in the future unless specifically approved by Congress.
Even before Republicans regained control of the House in November, Michaels had said it was unlikely that OSHA would try for new rules covering repetitive-motion injuries.
Instead, the agency wants to take a broader approach by enacting a regulation that would require employers to identify and take steps to avoid all significant workplace hazards, including musculoskeletal disorders. Several states, including California and Minnesota, already have such requirements. And some employers have voluntarily taken similar approaches, he said.
"Many employers say this is easy - this is a no-brainer," Michaels said. "They know a well-managed company manages safety and health programs. I think we'll get tremendous support for this. Instead of having employers look at standards they have to meet, they'll look at all the risks in their own workplaces and develop a program to abate those risks."
Seminario, of the AFL-CIO, countered that a broad mandate to identify risks and mitigate them leaves too much discretion to the employer. "It's a helpful tool, but it's not a substitute for standards," she said.
Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce will object to any risk prevention program that includes musculoskeletal disorders, Freedman said. "That becomes de facto regulation and it's back to the same argument," he said.