The Labor Department plans to issue guidelines for preventing and treating the epidemic of crippling repetitive-motion injuries in the meatpacking industry as the first step toward developing guidelines for all industries by the end of the summer.
The Occupational Health and Safety Administration has made repetitive-motion injuries -- such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis and lower back problems -- a special target for two years. IBP Inc. and John Morrell & Co., major meatpackers, were fined millions of dollars for workplace violations.
By issuing guidelines rather than proposing standards, OSHA officials hope to avoid the oversight of the Office of Management and Budget. Although the Bush administration has ventured more into regulation than did the Reagan White House, OSHA sources said they were concerned the proposed guidelines would be opposed by OMB.
Advance copies of meat-industry guidelines contain broad recommendations for actions ranging from detailed workplace analysis of all company jobs and worker involvement to a very specific program for managing medical treatment.
Although the guidelines will not be mandatory, Labor Department officials said employers who ignore them could face penalties from OSHA for ignoring their "general duty" to provide a safe and healthy workplace.
In its introduction to the guidelines, the department said the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 clearly states that the general duty of all employers is to provide employees with a workplace free from recognized hazards, including prevention and control of ergonomic hazards. Ergonomics is the science of making the job fit the worker rather than having the worker contort to the needs of the machine.
Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole is scheduled to announce the new guidelines for the red-meat industry within three weeks. Draft guidelines covering all industries are expected to be ready by August, according to department officials.
OSHA spokesman Roy Clason said "the general guidelines will be a more general variation of the red-meat guidelines." He said repetitive-motion injuries "can be identified in almost every industry to some degree or another. It's time to make employers and employees aware of the hazards." Repetitive-motion injuries often involve the swelling of tendons and tendon sheaths and aggravation of nerves in the hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders.
Some union officials have expressed concerned that the guidelines will simply provide OSHA with an excuse for not inspecting plants.
Deborah Berkowitz is director of safety and health for the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents thousands of workers in the meatpacking industry and has been instrumental in bringing about some of the biggest OSHA fines in the industry. She said the guidelines were nothing more than an educational tool.
"This is like the government putting out an educational pamphlet on AIDS," she said. "If OSHA doesn't go out and do more inspections, we're in trouble."
Other union safety officials were less critical. "At least the glass is half full," said the safety director of another large union who did not wish to be indentified, adding that the guidelines were a significant step for OSHA.
Industry critics also are concerned about the guidelines but for a different reason. Sources in the meatpacking industry said they feared that OSHA would use the guidelines as a standard for enforcing the general-duty clause of the health and safety law.
Under the guidelines, employers are urged to do a workplace analysis to identify existing hazards and then take steps to prevent and control them, primarily through equipment changes wherever possible.
OSHA also calls for employers to establish a medical management system for treating workers once they have been injured, a particularly important step in an industry in which employers often insist that workers be treated by company doctors. The agency recommends an automatic second opinion when surgery or other major treatment is concerned.
At the same time, the guidelines in some ways appear to weaken medical reporting requirements by changing the definition of which injuries employers must record in a way that could allow fewer injuries to be reported.