ERGONOMICS DEBATE BEGINS AGAIN

WASHINGTON -- Food industry associations here are bracing for another round of debates on workplace regulations as the Department of Labor began a series of hearings on the topic last week.The hearings represent the Bush administration's first effort to confront this highly contentious issue.Nearly all the industry associations have said they would rather have companies and associations create voluntary

WASHINGTON -- Food industry associations here are bracing for another round of debates on workplace regulations as the Department of Labor began a series of hearings on the topic last week.

The hearings represent the Bush administration's first effort to confront this highly contentious issue.

Nearly all the industry associations have said they would rather have companies and associations create voluntary guidelines than have the government formulate regulations for workplace safety.

However, organized labor, including the United Food and Commercial Workers Union International here, has expressed concern that the current round of hearings is devoting too much time to management representatives and too little to time to workers and their unions.

A previous set of regulations on workplace safety issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the final weeks of the Clinton administration was overturned by Congress earlier this year, with the support of the Bush administration and much lobbying by the food industry.

Food industry spokesmen who took part in last week's Labor Department hearings included Tim Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of the Food Marketing Institute here, and Tom Wenning, senior vice president and general counsel, National Grocers Association.

Hammonds told the hearing it is difficult to even come to a consensus regarding the definition of ergonomics injuries and that "without a clear and understandable definition, it is impossible to prescribe a cure."

He noted that since the very nature of ergonomics injuries has eluded experts, "no cookie-cutter federal regulation with command-and-control mandates is going to reduce injuries any faster than employers and employees working together in a cooperative spirit."

In his testimony at the Labor Department hearing, Wenning said compliance costs could be severely detrimental to small businesses that would in most cases have to hire engineers and specialists to conform to government standards.

Hammonds told SN, "We approach this issue from the point of view of an industry that is voluntarily reducing the rate of injury faster than would have happened under the old rules.

"The best role OSHA can play is to keep the spotlight on the issue, and to identify industries that are not up to speed and help them make progress by connecting them with those who are leading the way in reducing injuries.

"OSHA should take an industry-by-industry analysis, find out which companies are doing the best job, and help those companies share their knowledge."

Hammonds explained that FMI has done extensive work with the Grocery Manufacturers of America here to create case-weight restrictions to alleviate back injuries and also has worked with equipment manufacturers to help solve some of the causes of carpal tunnel syndrome among employees working the checkout lanes in supermarkets.

Wenning said to SN, "The best way to address this issue is through employer/employee relationships, not through costly mandates that will in effect minimize workers' compensation contributions because of the expense. Reduction in workplace injuries is most achievable through the voluntary implementation of standards."

John Block, president and CEO, Food Distributors International, Falls Church, Va., told SN, "We are not disappointed with the present situation. Secretary [of Labor Elaine] Chao has a political obligation to look into the issue. Our position is that there is no clear definition of what these injuries are, and if they are truly work-related.

"Also, there has been an enormous amount of incentive for businesses to improve safety, and any regulation introduced by the government will be an unworkable mess, finally resulting in adding more cost to the system."

Peter Cleary, spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers of America here, told SN that the association is supportive of Secretary Chao's efforts on the issue.

"We are pleased to see Ms. Chao keeping an open mind in dealing with the issue," he said. "She has expressed a commitment to hear both sides of the argument, which we support."

The GMA wants simple regulations "based on science, not on politics," according to Cleary.

In contrast, the UFCW here expressed concern that these forums aren't getting at the root of the problem.

Jackie Nowell, UFCW director, occupational safety and health, said, "The Bush administration's Department of Labor, in holding these useless public forums, is stalling and delaying real protection for workers who have jobs that put them at risk for musculoskeletal disorders.

"It is the job of the department to address serious workplace hazards through strong enforcement and regulation. There are thousands of pages of testimony and documentation that provide ample evidence for a standard.

"Those testifying at these forums, which are heavily weighted to industry, aren't adding anything of substance that isn't already in the record. The UFCW continues to demand that the Department of Labor do its job and promulgate an ergonomics standard to protect our members."