The House last night narrowly passed a bill delaying the implementation of federal ergonomics regulations until 2001, despite strong opposition from the Clinton administration.
The 217-to-209 vote came on a day devoted to business issues on the House floor. Earlier, the House voted to crack down on illegal sales of alcohol through the Internet and mail orders, taking sides with beer and liquor wholesalers in their battle with small wineries and breweries.
The ergonomics measure, introduced by Chief Deputy Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), has prompted sparring between business and labor. The bill would postpone rules the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had planned to release this fall until after the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) completes a study on ergonomics.
Congress and the administration have been feuding over possible ergonomics standards since 1995. Businesses and many Republicans argue that the proposed rules--which would cover work-related musculoskeletal disorders in industries ranging from meatpacking to nursing homes--are too vague and premature. Unions and some Democrats, by contrast, say the standards are overdue and could help reduce workplace injuries.
The proposed rules would required employers to establish a reporting system for ergonomic injuries as well as provide time off and medical care for workers. Any report of an injury would trigger the rules, which could apply to companies that use computers or grocery scanners.
Blunt argued the administration should not impose new standards on industry without waiting for the $1 million NAS study the White House and Congress agreed to as part of a larger budget agreement last year.
AFL-CIO legislative representative Jay Power said that House appropriators emphasized last year that the study they funded should not delay the implementation of new ergonomics standards.
Though backers of the measure to delay the rules hope to have the legislation attached to a must-pass bill in the Senate--in the words of U.S. Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Randy Johnson, "to something that the president really likes"--the administration has already threatened to veto the bill.
The alcohol bill, which passed 310 to 112, affects states that restrict alcohol sales to government-licensed dealers. Most states have such restrictions, and the legislation would allow their prosecutors to go after out-of-state wineries and breweries that ship their products directly to consumers in their states. Under the bill, such companies could be prosecuted in federal court.
Wineries and breweries argue that the measure would make them even more captive to wholesalers, by forcing them to find a middleman to transport their products out of state.
The liquor bill, sponsored by Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.), triggered fierce fighting within the liquor industry. The Senate approved a comparable measure as part of juvenile justice legislation last spring.