A Renewed Battle Over Heavy Lifting

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By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Construction companies, which won an exemption from a Clinton administration rule intended to protect workers from heavy lifting and other repetitive-motion injuries, are trying to kill off a new voluntary industry standard.

Five trade groups representing U.S. residential and commercial builders filed an appeal on Nov. 9 of an ergonomics measure adopted by the nonprofit American National Standards Institute, which uses safety professionals and labor and industry to develop rules. There is no penalty if employers ignore the standards.

"It strains credulity to assert that a voluntary consensus standard exists in the face of opposition by the construction industry employers,'' the appeal said. Some issues "are so contentious they do not lend themselves to the development of consensus standards.''

The regulation of ergonomics -- the relationship of workers to their physical environment -- has been a decade-long battleground involving Congress, business, labor and government. The Labor Department said in 2001 that more than 600,000 workers a year had to take time off because of ergonomic-related injuries. Congress that year overturned a Clinton administration rule designed to prevent such injuries.

Since then, business groups have been vigilant in preventing most formal regulation at the state or federal level. Most of them don't support the voluntary ergonomic "guidelines'' that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued covering poultry processing, grocery stores and nursing homes.

The five trade groups will "do whatever they can to stop an ergonomics standard,'' said Frank Burg, a safety consultant who worked on the voluntary rule. "We reached out to these people and put 90 percent of what they wanted in the standard.''

The American Society of Safety Engineers, a trade group in Des Plaines, Ill., oversaw the process that led to the institute's adoption of the rule on June 4. The appeal will be decided in February.

The issue carries more weight now because of the industry's concern that a Democrat might take the White House and resurrect an enforceable federal ergonomics standard. Almost all the Democratic presidential candidates are on record saying they support protecting workers from such injuries.

The construction industry also fears that OSHA might use the Washington-based institute's voluntary rule as a basis for citing employers for infractions under its general safety regulations, or as a model for a future rule.

About half the 9,529 voluntary standards adopted by the standards institute over the years have been used to support federal rules, said Stacy Leistner, a spokesman for the institute.

Strains and sprains account for 35 percent of the work days lost in construction, said Laura Welch, medical director for the Center for Construction Research and Training of Silver Spring, which is affiliated with trade unions. Three-quarters of the incidents are due to overexertion.

According to Labor Department data, there were 52,880 cases of strains and sprains among the nation's 11 million construction workers last year. This is a decline from 57,310 reports in 2004.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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