Safe At Last?
It’s called musculoskeletal disorder or MSD, the most common of the serious injuries suffered by U.S. workers. But because corporate employers fear that greater public awareness would force them to spend more on job safety, MSD has remained one of the least understood of injuries.
The latest government figures show that more than 60 percent of the million or more on-the-job injuries reported annually are MSD-related. Some of the victims are permanently disabled, and many more have to take time off from work while their injuries heal.
The victims include computer operators, factory and construction workers, meat and poultry processors, hospital and restaurant employees, supermarket clerks and many others. They suffer serious neck, shoulder and back problems, chronically sore arms and wrists and other repetitive motion injuries resulting from work that requires them to be in almost constant motion, bending, reaching, typing, or frequently lifting heavy objects.
The first serious government efforts to combat the rapidly growing problem of MSD came ten years ago, in the final days of the Clinton administration. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a lengthy set of so-called ergonomic regulations that were designed to lessen the dangers of MSD.
The regulations, which had taken three years to draft, covered such things as how long and how many breaks workers in particular occupations should get, what protective equipment should be issued to them, how their work stations should be designed and hundreds of related matters.
That was way too much for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other corporate employer representatives. They got their Republican allies, who controlled Congress, to repeal OSHA¹s regulations just before the decidedly anti-labor George W. Bush succeeded Clinton.
Certainly neither Bush nor his OSHA appointees would even consider such impingements on their corporate friends. Signing the legislation that repealed the ergonomic regulations was one of Bush’s first acts as president. He followed that quickly by revoking 19 previously approved grants that were to go to unions, universities and labor-management groups to finance safety and health training programs for small business employers and particularly vulnerable groups such as construction workers and immigrants.
Bush’s OSHA appointees, many of them former executives of the industries they were supposed to regulate, blocked, withdrew or weakened dozens of other safety regulations in addition to those covering MSD. They discontinued safety education and training programs, worked with Congress to cut their own barely adequate budgets and instead of enforcing the safety laws, stressed “voluntary compliance” by employers.
But now comes Barack Obama and his labor and Democratic Party allies to resume the fight for the ergonomic regulations President Clinton had been forced to abandon.
The initial proposals of President Obama’s OSHA appointees are modest. They’re asking merely that employers note, on the accident reports they are required to file, whether the injury was MSD-related. No such designation is currently required, which makes it difficult - if not impossible - for OSHA to collect the accurate data required to develop a program for effectively dealing with MSD, the most serious safety problem faced by American workers.
Corporate employers headed by the Chamber of Commerce oppose even that simple reform. They fear it would be a first step toward development of an ergonomic safety program that could cost employers millions of dollars to implement.
It also could bring badly needed protections to U.S. workers. But workers’ concerns are, of course, of secondary interest to the Chamber of Commerce and its Republican friends. They’re not much interested in helping working people. Their role is to further the profit-seeking of employers, even if that should come at the expense of the men and women who do the nation's work.
Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based columnist, has covered labor and politics for a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com