Senate Dems criticize new Labor Department ergonomics plan

The Labor Department's announcement that it would complete work on a nursing home guideline as part of its voluntary ergonomics plan by the end of the year did not sit well with Senate Democrats at a Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing Thursday.

"This is really only a plan to come up with a plan," said Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who along with many other Democrats supported the Clinton administration rule repealed by Congress last year.

While the Bush administration earlier this month announced a four-part ergonomics strategy that would include education, voluntary industry guidelines, increased enforcement and research, Democrats said it was not stringent enough and that the administration did not put enough money into it.

Meanwhile, Republicans defended the plan. "This plan has more flexibility and responsiveness than any regulation could provide," said Sen. Christopher (Kit) Bond, R-Mo.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., pointed out that the Bush budget would cut nearly $11 million from the Labor Department's enforcement team and in-training grants at a time when the guidelines would begin to come on line.

Clinton also defended the program backed by her husband, former President Clinton, saying a rule was "the only thing they hadn't tried."

Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Employment Subcommittee Chairman Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., and others criticized the department's dependence on OSHA's "general duty" clause requiring employers to keep their workplaces free from recognized serious hazards, which has been used with mixed success.

"General duty clause enforcement is lengthy, burdensome, expensive, resource intensive, and--most importantly--not a preventative tool," Wellstone said.

Committee Republicans and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao vigorously defended the department's approach. Chao said that 17 new employees would be hired in the enforcement department, and she defended the decision not to move forward with another rule.

"There's an assumption that rules work.... That is not at all certain.... That rule would have been bogged down in litigation," she said of the Clinton rule.

As for the general duty clause, Chao pointed to the recently settled Beverly Enterprises case, where assisted lifting devices were required for workers. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., noted that the case took 10 years to settle and will take another five to implement, but Chao said future cases would build on the experience and move more quickly.

Republicans also dismissed a bill introduced Wednesday by Sens. John Breaux, D-La., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., that would require the Labor Department to issue an ergonomics rule within two years. The bill would bring the Clinton regulation "back from the dustbin of bad government policy," Bond said.

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