Kudos to the Obama Administration and the Department of Labor for conducting webchats about the department and its sub-cabinet agencies’ regulatory agendas on Monday. They seemed to work well and provided useful information. (Earlier post.)

We’ll admit to be frustrated by the online comments from Jordan Barab, the acting administrator of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), on the topic of ergonomics. Next week Barab will become deputy administrator after the newly confirmed David Michaels assumes the top spot. This week, he offered conflicting commentary on whether the agency would propose new ergonomics regulations.

Here are two exchanges:

Monday December 7, 2009 4:08

[Comment From Judie Smithers] From the Secretary’s chat: The agenda has an entry at the proposed rule stage to add requirements to record musculoskeletal disorders in a separate column on the 300 log. Does this signifiy that OSHA is considering future action to promulgate an ergonomics standard?

Jordan : Judie, This is not a prelude to a broader ergonomics standard. No, we are simply putting the MSD column back on the OSHA log as was originally intended in the 2001 issuance of OSHA’s recordkeeping standard. MSDs continue to be a major problem for American workers, but at this time, OSHA has no plans for regulatory activity.

Monday December 7, 2009 4:32

[Comment From Holly] In a speech recently, you called ergonomics a “huge health and safety problem” and said the govt must “take the field and make some fundamental changes.” Given these comments, why WOULDN’T OSHA have plans for regulatory activity?

Jordan: Holly: You’re right. I called musculoskeletal disorders a “huge health and safety problem.” I also called it a “huge political issue” and that we are in the process of determining how we are going to address it. Our new Assistant Secretary will arrive later this week, and we will intensify the process of determining how we are going to address ergonomics.

So OSHA has no plans for a new ergonomics rule, but it might have plans next week after Michaels arrives? Repetitive stress disorders are a “huge health and safety problem,” but OSHA’s goal now is merely to “intensify the process?” What in the world is “intensify the process”?

Since Barab’s all over the map in those responses, let’s pin him down to Milwaukee, Wisc., where he gave a speech to the AFL-CIO on September 25, the speech that commenter Holly cites in her question.

Here’s what he said to the labor audience, with lawyers the primary constituency for new rules:

And soon we must confront the 60,000-pound elephant in the room: Ergonomics. Let’s acknowledge a couple of obvious things about “ergo.” First, it’s a huge health and safety problem, recognized by strong science. Second, it’s a huge political football that some very big players don’t want to see on the field. Well, for the sake of our working men and women, we have to take the field and make some fundamental changes in America’s workplaces.

That sounds like OSHA will propose a new rule, doesn’t it? The Clinton Administration used a “midnight regulation” to establish an ergonomics standard in 2001, repealed by Congress using the Congressional Review Act because of the rule’s multi-billion-dollar cost, ambiguity, and potential to destroy jobs.

We’ve put more of Barab’s map-skittering responses in the extended entry below. Judging from the answers, we suspect that if OSHA issues a new rule — President Obama’s inclination as announced on the campaign trail — it will try to disguise its costs and burdens to escape political backlash.

It’s a shame the Senate HELP Committee could not manage to hold a confirmation hearing for David Michaels to allowing a public examination of issues like ergonomics. Well, welcome aboard, Mr. Assistant Secretary.

More comments and responses excerpted from the chat. The formatting is a little off.

Comment From Laura Walter, EHS TodayLaura Walter, EHS Today: ]On this agenda, OSHA has included 9 items in the pre-rule stage, 8 in the proposed rule stage, another 8 in the final rule stage, as well as two long-term actions and three completed actions. How does the scope of this agenda define how OSHA is currently approaching regulatory action, and is this the level of activity we can continue to expect in the future?

Monday December 7, 2009 4:38 Laura Walter, EHS Today

Jordan: Laura: OSHA is currently focusing on moving a number of standards that have been stuck in the pipeline for the past eight years. In addition, we have added combustible dust, airborne infectious diseases and the MSD column back on the OSHA injury and illness log back onto the regulatory. Now that our new Assistant Secretary has been confirmed, we will be moving forward on additional regulatory initiatives. Monday December 7, 2009 4:38 Jordan

4:50 [Comment From Laura Walter, EHS TodayLaura Walter, EHS Today: ] 1. How does OSHA plan to use the information that would be included in the proposed WMSD column on the 300 Log to improve safety and health policymaking and statistics? Does this attention to WMSDs indicate any potential future intentions of developing an ergonomics standard? Monday December 7, 2009 4:50 Laura Walter, EHS Today

4:50 Jordan: Laura, OSHA believes that putting the MSD column back on the log will improve the nation’s occupational injury and illness statistics as well as providing useful information that employers and workers can use to better identify musculoskeletal disorders in their workplaces. Musculoskeletal injuries are one of the biggest worker health and safety problem in this country. But addressing this problem is also a complicated regulatory and poltical issue which the agency is considering. At this time, OSHA has no plans to pursue ergonomics regulation, although the incoming Assistant Secretary will be addressing this issue as one of his highest priorities. Monday December 7, 2009 4:50 Jordan

4:51[Comment From Michele MarillMichele Marill: ] In the area of ergonomics, would OSHA consider industry-specific standards, such as a safe patient handling standard? Monday December 7, 2009 4:51 Michele Marill

4:51 Jordan: Thanks, Michele, there are many options that OSHA might consider if the agency decides to pursue rulemaking in this area. Industry specific standards is one option that would be considered. Monday December 7, 2009 4:51 Jordan

Join the discussion One Comment

Leave a Reply