AFL-CIO President John Sweeney denounced the workplace safety policy announced by the Bush administration on April 5 as a “weak and unenforceable ‘plan’” that offers workers no real protections against the nation’s biggest safety problem – ergonomic injuries such as carpel tunnel syndrome, caused by repetitive motions, heavy lifting and poorly-designed work.

“With today’s announcement the Bush administration again caters to corporate special interests and abdicates its responsibility to protect workers,” Sweeney said.

In the 13 months since Congress repealed regulations put in place by the Clinton administration, workers have suffered more than 1.8 million injuries at an average of one injury every 18 seconds. Over the last decade, such injuries have hurt millions of clothing workers, secretaries, nursing home aides, assembly line workers and poultry plant workers.

Jackie Nowell, safety director for the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents thousands of employees at meat and poultry plants, called the new policy “‘window dressing.’ It’s the emperor’s new clothes,” she said.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) blasted the plan. “Once again, the administration handed a win to big business at the expense of millions of average workers – especially women – who risk workplace injuries every single day,” he said.

Union leaders insisted that the Bush plan offered little except vague talk about developing guidelines and bringing enforcement actions in the future. They complain that the plan does not outline an enforceable ergonomic standard but offers only a stated intention to eventually develop voluntary guidelines for selected industries.

Sweeney said the question of how the Labor Department would implement “even its limited plan is a mystery,” given that Bush’s budget for fiscal year 2003 slashes the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s enforcement and training budget by more than $10 million and the job safety research funding by $20 million.

The Clinton plan, issued in President Bill Clinton’s last months in office, required employers to take numerous actions if any of their workers developed ergonomics injuries on the job. Business groups said the rules, which covered 102 million employees at 6 million work sites, would cost $120 billion to carry out, while the Labor Department estimated they would cost $4.5 billion.

The Clinton rule was issued in November 2000 after a fight, spanning more than decade, that saw the business community finance an all-out war against the rule that was designed to address the nation’s most prevalent workplace safety hazard.

Sweeney called the Bush administration’s announcement “a meaningless measure that yet again delays action and provides no protection against ergonomic hazards – the nation’s biggest safety problem.”

When he signed the ergonomics rule’s repeal, Bush promised that the safety and health of the nation’s workforce was a priority for his administration. “Together we will pursue a comprehensive approach to ergonomics,” he said. “We will work with the Congress, the business community and our nation’s workers to address this important issue.”

Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao made similar commitments throughout the year, including this vow in a Nov. 5 letter to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa): “… as promised, I still plan to announce a course of action on ergonomics later this year. It is not our intention to delay this matter indefinitely.”

Chao was scheduled to outline the administration’s approach to ergonomics at a March 14 Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee hearing. However, the committee announced that Chao had requested the hearing be postponed. She next is scheduled to come before Congress when she testifies on the Labor Department’s 2003 budget request April 18.

The AFL-CIO has promised to continue the fight for and enforceable ergonomics, adding that the issue would be high on the agenda during celebrations of Workers Memorial Day on April 28.

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