Hidden Injuries of Class

Take a good dose of free-market ideology, mix in
political debts to your business backers and an overriding concern with
re-election, and voila: You have the recipe for George W. Bush's domestic
policies. The imperative of re-election has taken precedence over Bush's
conservative convictions on some occasions, leading him to adopt policies like
the tariffs on steel that have annoyed some of his business backers. But this
doesn't happen often and hardly at all on complicated issues that don't receive
widespread attention from the national media. Such has certainly been the case
with many regulatory (or deregulatory) decisions by the Federal Communications
Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But nowhere has it been
more apparent than in Bush's approach to worker health and safety.

This issue is the all-time unsexy news story. It only gets attention
when a mine explodes or a postal employee goes berserk. Yet it's of vital
interest to just about every blue-collar worker -- and to white-collar workers who
have to perform repetitive physical tasks or who work in poorly ventilated or
excessively noisy offices. And it's an issue where government regulation has made
a difference. During the 1970s and the late 1990s, when the Occupational Safety
and Health Administration (OSHA) was adequately funded, it had a dramatic effect
on the incidence of job injuries. Between 1995 and 2000, for instance, the number
of injuries and illnesses dropped to 6.1 from 8.1 for every 100 workers.

But companies heartily dislike OSHA because it often costs them real money to
improve working conditions. They don't want existing regulations rigorously
enforced and they don't want any new ones created, which last happened in
November 2000 when the Clinton administration issued new rules governing
musculoskeletal "ergonomic" injuries. During the last election cycle, companies
such as United Parcel Service, FedEx, and Anheuser-Busch gave Republicans
millions of dollars to tame OSHA and to fight any such new regulations.

And Bush and the Republicans in Congress have delivered. The president adopted
the classic conservative strategy for undermining agencies that regulate
business: Underfund them, and when that doesn't work, replace government
regulation with Herbert Hoover-style business self-regulation. As governor of
Texas, Bush did just that with the state's clean-air laws; as president, he has
followed the same strategy toward environmental- and worker-safety regulations.

Conservatives have always understood that even the strictest
labor laws or environmental regulations don't matter if the government doesn't
enforce them. Their first line of attack against agencies such as the OSHA or the
EPA has been to cut their budgets in ways that force them to lay off the
employees who would do the enforcing. In the Reagan years, Republicans used
budget cuts to reduce OSHA's staff to 2,211 in 1987 from 2,951 in 1980. In
1995-1996, the Republican Congress moved against OSHA, reducing its staff to
2,069; but in Bill Clinton's second term the agency's budget began to rise and
OSHA began to increase its enforcement staff. By 2001 there were 2,370 workers at
the agency.

Bush has tried to start the ball rolling downward again. In his first
budget, he proposed a cut in OSHA funding. But Congress, led by the Democratic
Senate, was able to raise funding slightly but not enough to preserve 54 jobs.
For fiscal year 2003, the Bush administration has once again proposed a drop in
OSHA funding and the elimination of 83 positions, 64 of them in enforcement. It's
also taking a whack at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
(NIOSH), the other agency set up by the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act.
NIOSH is one of 11 health-research agencies funded through the Health and Human
Services Department. While the administration has proposed sharp spending
increases in 10 of the 11 agencies (including the National Heart, Lung, and
Blood Institute and the National Cancer Institute), it has proposed a 10.5
percent reduction in NIOSH's funding (even though it already receives far less
than any other health agency). Under Bush's proposal, for instance, the National
Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases would receive 540 percent
more funding than NIOSH. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute would
exceed it by more than 1,000 percent. That's not a misprint.

Bush and his his labor secretary, former Heritage Foundation fundraiser Elaine
Chao, have also taken the offensive against any serious initiatives that address
musculoskeletal disorders. These kinds of injuries -- from herniated disks to torn
cartilage to carpal tunnel syndrome -- particularly affect truck divers, nursing
home workers, janitors, cashiers, stock handlers and baggers, and construction
laborers. And they now account for more than one-third of all worker ailments.
Elizabeth Dole, the secretary of labor for Bush Senior, proposed regulations
covering these kind of injuries in 1990. When the Clinton administration tried to
adopt them, however, congressional conservatives passed riders to Labor
Department funding that required new scientific reports. After these studies
(conducted by NIOSH in 1997 and the National Academy of Sciences in 1998) affirmed
a clear link between workplace conditions and musculoskeletal disorders,
congressional Republicans held the entire budget hostage until Clinton agreed not
to adopt the regulations. Finally, on November 13, 2000 -- one week after the
presidential election -- Clinton decreed new standards for workplace safety by
executive order. Even though these standards represented a compromise between the
AFL-CIO and business groups, overturning them became a cause
célèbre for business lobbies and their conservative allies. No
issue was as important to Bush in establishing his bona fides among K Street
lobbyists who had backed his campaign.

In March 2001 the Republican Congress, at Bush's urging, overturned the
Clinton administration's new regulations. Chao wrote a letter to Congress
declaring her intention "to pursue a comprehensive approach to ergonomics, which
may include new rule-making, that addresses the concerns levied against the
current standard." But she failed to keep her promise. In July 2001 she rejected
a proposal from within the Labor Department that would require employers to
include a separate category of musculoskeletal injuries as part of the regular
reports they file with OSHA. Even though studies from three scientific bodies (the
latest being another National Academy of Sciences report that appeared in January
2001) had reaffirmed the importance of musculoskeletal injuries, Chao, whose
advanced degree is in business, claimed that these injuries were "inadequately
defined" and "hard to identify."

In November, prodded by members of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Chao
promised to issue a department policy on ergonomics -- but one, she said, that
would be based "on cooperation and prevention, rather than the antiquated,
adversarial approach of years past." Last month Chao finally unveiled her
approach. "Our goal is to help workers by reducing ergonomic injuries in the
shortest possible time frame," she said. "This plan is a major improvement over
the rejected old rule because it will prevent ergonomics injuries before they
occur and reach a much larger number of at-risk workers."

The Chao plan, though, was actually designed to allow businesses to ignore
these workers. Under the proposal, the Labor Department would draft voluntary
"guidelines" aimed at specific industries. A department handout specifically
assured industries that if they failed to heed the guidelines they would not be
prosecuted under OSHA's general-duty clause, which requires employers to rid
their workplaces of known hazards. "A guideline is a tool to assist employers in
recognizing and controlling hazards," the Labor Department declared. "It is
voluntary. Failure to implement a guideline is not itself a violation of the
General Duty Clause of the OSH Act." In other words, businesses would not pay any
price for ignoring the guidelines.

The Labor Department plan also proposed "outreach" to inform workers about
musculoskeletal injuries and a new advisory committee to research those
disorders. But it proposed no new money or personnel for either venture in its
2003 budget. It did, however, include one cynical, shameless sop to an important
Bush electoral constituency -- a Hispanic outreach program. "As part of the
Department of Labor's cross-agency commitment to protecting immigrant workers,
especially those with limited English proficiency," the statement read, "the new
ergonomics plan includes a specialized focus to help Hispanic and other immigrant
workers, many of whom work in industries with high ergonomic hazard rates."

Would any employer ever be prosecuted by the Labor Department for maintaining
conditions that lead to musculoskeletal injuries? Chao's OSHA administrator,
John Henshaw, said that the agency would continue to prosecute employers who fail
to remove hazards under the agency's general-duty clause. But a look at the Bush
Labor Department's record is not reassuring. In 2001 it prosecuted exactly one
case involving a musculoskeletal injury.

You would think that Democrats and moderate Republicans would
have prevented Bush and Chao from getting their way, but they have been
singularly ineffective in building a majority coalition to defend OSHA. When
Republicans proposed killing Clinton's ergonomics regulations last year, the
measure passed the Senate 56-to-44 because six Democrats voted for it and no
moderate Republican voted against it. In the House, it passed 223-to-206 with 16
Democrats voting for it and only 13 Republicans opposed. The situation among
liberal interest groups is no better. Except for the AFL-CIO, none of the major
civil rights, feminist, or public-interest groups made a fuss over the ergonomics
regulations. And the national press is largely indifferent to issues that concern
hospital orderlies but not soccer moms. Workers' health and safety doesn't have
the cachet of polar bears on the Alaskan tundra or stem cells in a petri dish.

Even within the labor movement there was a certain lassitude. Some
unions such as the Service Employees International Union were visibly active, but
the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, whose members are disproportionately
affected by ergonomic injuries, was relatively silent. If the Teamsters had
fought against Bush on this issue as fiercely as they fought for him to secure oil
drilling in Alaska, the administration might have had more trouble getting its
way in Congress. Instead, Bush and Chao have gotten a free ride on an issue that
should rightly have taken them straight to political hell.

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