Monday, April 29, 2002

Guidelines in works for nursing homes

Plan to reduce injuries coming from Labor Department

By Brian Tumulty
Gannett News Service

        WASHINGTON — The Labor Department plans to formulate industrywide guidelines for nursing homes in the first phase of its strategy to reduce the nation's 1.8 million injuries a year caused by repetitive motion and strain.

        Nursing homes reported 34,522 cases of employees who lost workdays due to such injuries as back pain, sprains and muscle tears in 2000. With a musculoskeletal disorder injury rate of 332 out of every 10,000 full-time workers, the industry ranked No. 3, behind airlines and beverage wholesalers and distributors.

        However, senators dissatisfied with the administration's voluntary approach say they will try to force the Labor Department to put a mandatory regulation in effect within two years.

        Sens. John Breaux, D-La., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said they have 22 co-sponsors for a bill that would clearly define the circumstances under which an employer must address workplace ergonomic hazards and set performance standards.

        Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, testifying earlier this month at a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said a new federal regulation would take more than four years to create and would be challenged in court.

        “Our No. 1 priority was to protect workers in as quickly a manner as possible,” Ms. Chao said.

        Congress voted last year to repeal the Clinton administration's regulation that would have required employers to take action to reduce ergonomic injuries. Trying to replace it would be “a colossal step backward,” Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond, R-Mo., said at Thursday's hearing.

        But Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said her husband's administration pursued a binding regulation because all other options — voluntary guidelines and federal lawsuits — had been exhausted.

        “The reason the rule was adopted was that everything else had been tried,” said Ms. Clinton, D-N.Y.

        Ergonomic injuries such as sore backs and wrists caused by repetitive stress and motion account for about a third of the 5.7 million on-the-job illnesses and injuries reported annually.

        The Bush administration's strategy, announced April 5, is based on new voluntary guidelines for industries with high injury rates, enforcement of the agency's general workplace safety authority through litigation, education and scientific research by a new advisory group. Targeted industries have not been announced, except for Ms. Chao's disclosure that the nursing home industry will be first.

        Even that announcement came under fire.

        The Veterans Administration already has guidelines for safely handling patients at VA hospitals, said Bill Borwegen, occupational health and safety director of the Service Employees International Union, which represents 100,000 of the nation's 1.75 million nursing home workers.

        Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., described Ms. Chao's announcement as “an incredibly shrinking plan” that addresses only one industry while failing to tackle others with high rates of ergonomic injuries such as tire manufacturing, painting and paper hanging, and alcoholic beverage wholesale and delivery. “I'm interested in why we don't have plans to help these workers,” he said.

        Ms. Chao said at the hearing that guidelines for other industries will be developed, but she acknowledged that employers who reject the voluntary guidelines won't necessarily be targeted for the enforcement strategy of filing lawsuits.

        The voluntary guidelines also won't automatically apply to the 26 states that have their own state-run Occupational Safety and Health agencies, said Ms. Clinton. New York is one of three states with state coverage of public employees, while 23 others have state coverage of private-sector employees.

        John Henshaw, administrator of the Labor Department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, assured Ms. Clinton that his agency will work with those states

        In the meantime, states with their own agencies and workers in industries not targeted by OSHA will get no aid, noted Eric Frumin, safety director for the labor union UNITE. He cited as an example the testimony at the Senate hearing by Melody Purvis, a former catalogue warehouse employee from Indianapolis.

        Ms. Purvis, 42, said she was fired in January by the firm Brylane for an ergonomic injury that the catalogue company could no longer accommodate. She said Brylane changed workstations in a Massachusetts facility but not in Indianapolis.

        “I truly believe that if Brylane had spent their time fixing the job instead of trying to fix me, I could still be working today,” Ms. Purvis said.


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