By Michelle Levander

Mercury News Staff Writer

Federal OSHA has retreated from an ambitious plan to prevent ergonomic illnesses in every workplace in America.

The revised rules would cover 21 million workers, instead of the 100 million in its original draft. And, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has indefinitely delayed the next step in its traditional rule-making process.

Instead, the agency, for the first time in its history, has opted for informal conversations with employers and workers about its proposal.

The vitriol the draft regulation has inspired among House Republicans stands in sharp contrast to its beginnings.

In 1990, then-Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole, a Republican, proposed that OSHA prevent what she called painful and crippling musculoskeletal illnesses caused by repetitive tasks. ``We must do our utmost to protect workers from these hazards . . . in all industries,'' she said.

Now, in the new political climate in Washington, Republicans have made OSHA's proposed ergonomic standard a symbol of everything wrong in the capital, and the prospects for any ergonomic regulations -- either in Washington or Sacramento -- seem bleak.

Last week, a furious House majority whip cut OSHA's fiscal 1995 budget by an additional $3.5 million, compounding an earlier $16 million budget cut. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said he wanted ``to force OSHA to cease its activities'' on an ergonomic standard he described as ``paternalistic'' and ``a menace.''

``You are dealing with a mood or mindset in the House that any OSHA proposal that came forward with ergonomics would be cited as over-regulation,'' said John Tysse, a lobbyist with the Labor Policy Association, a coalition of Fortune 500 human resources executives. ``That's how strong the sentiment is to whack them back.''

Even federal OSHA's more conciliatory efforts are being rebuked by House Republicans, who had already passed a regulatory moratorium. OSHA chief Joe Dear has scaled back a number of provisions in the proposed rule and has told frustrated employers he wants to stop nitpicking them for poor record-keeping. Furthermore, the agency will no longer judge its success by the number of fines it issues. None of this has appeased its opponents.

``The business community is riding this train rather than running it,'' said Tysse. ``We watch with a certain amount of fascination.''

Federal OSHA estimates that cumulative trauma disease, caused by repetitive tasks such as meatpacking and computer work, costs employers $20 billion annually in worker's compensation costs. Close to 300,000 workers suffered such injuries in 1992. Such disorders account for 61 percent of all workplace illnesses.

The modified draft would exempt employers with existing programs from certain requirements, limit employee education to those at risk for injury and no longer require employer review of workers' compensation records.

However, it would still require employers to look for risk factors such as repetitive job tasks, fixed or awkward postures and vibrating tools. Employers would be required to educate workers with those jobs about risk factors and develop methods to control risks in ``problem jobs.''

Meanwhile, in California, the future of any ergonomic regulation appears to rest with the courts. Last November, the state Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board rejected a draft ergonomic standard despite a law requiring it to adopt such a rule by Jan 1.

The state AFL-CIO subsequently sued the agency for defying the legislative mandate. In a hearing scheduled for April 23, the court could order the agency to take action. On a separate front, Republican legislators are trying to overturn the law mandating an ergonomic regulation.

``It's very difficult for OSHA or anyone who wants to look out for worker health and safety,'' said Peg Seminario, director of health and safety for the AFL-CIO.

In San Jose, at least one businessman said he'd welcome guidance from a regulatory agency.

John Heagerty, the president of Coakley Heagerty, a 25-person public relations and advertising firm, said he doesn't want needless regulation. However, he added, ``We all need some help in these areas. With new technologies and new ways of working with one another, I think we need standards.''

Published 3/21/95 in the San Jose Mercury News.

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