WASHINGTON -- The food industry last week breathed a collective sigh of relief as Labor Secretary Elaine Chao announced that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration would pursue ergonomics guidelines rather than enforce strict standards that could cripple businesses financially.
The announcement comes scarcely one year after the industry banded together to fight a repeal of ergonomics regulations. Industry executives claimed that the regulations would have cost businesses millions of dollars.
Tim Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of the Food Marketing Institute here, said, "Cooperation, not confrontation in the courts or regulatory arena, is the best strategy for improving workplace safety. Through voluntary efforts, food retailers have reduced workplace injuries by one-third since 1989, according to the most current data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"This figure reflects the industry's commitment to creating workplaces that are as safe as possible for employees. It simply makes good business sense to minimize injuries. A safe workplace improves productivity and employee morale. Regulation is not needed when a powerful incentive to do the right thing already exists."
Also important, Hammonds said, is that food retailers achieved these reductions with little help from the government. In fact, he no-ted the industry was forced to squander resources to fight an ill-conceived regulation, which Congress repealed last year. "All that time and money could have been much better used to promote voluntary programs that work."
OSHA last week unveiled its comprehensive plan designed to dramatically reduce ergonomics injuries through a combination of industry-targeted guidelines, workplace outreach and advanced research.
Chao said, "Our goal is to help workers by reducing ergonomics injuries in the shortest possible time frame. 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."
Hammonds said, "Using sound science and real-world experience, we can expect even more progress redu-cing worker injuries."
Other industry association executives applauded OSHA for creating guidelines rather than standards.
Tom Zaucha, president of the National Grocers Association, Arlington, Va., said, "NGA recommended that voluntary collaborative efforts between government and the private sector were far more workable than costly and burdensome mandates. NGA will work cooperatively with OSHA, as it proceeds in the coming months to develop industry guidelines, to assure that the decrease in work-related ergonomics injuries continues."
David French, vice president of government relations at Food Distributors International, Falls Church, Va., said, "The agency is taking a comprehensive, results-oriented approach designed to accelerate the ongoing reductions in ergonomics injuries.
"We are also encouraged that the agency will continue with research to answer questions that remain unclear, such as whether injuries are work-related, and how outside factors influence the risk of injury," French said. "This approach is properly focused on reducing injuries."
David Stafford, director of federal affairs at the Grocery Manufacturers of America here, said, "GMA feels these guidelines are a more effective approach than the previous regulations. The 'one size fits all' mentality of those regulations has been replaced with a plan that has the flexibility to work effectively toward the ultimate goal of reducing workplace injuries."
The United Food and Commercial Workers International here told SN that it feels the decision by OSHA is short-sighted.
Greg Denier, spokesman for the UFCW, said, "This is a major retreat after 10 years of progress in proving that ergonomics injuries are a workplace epidemic.
"Employees may think this is a good idea, but where they win on one end, they lose on another," Denier told SN.
"Workers' compensation costs will continue to rise, and productivity will be affected by employees missing work due to injuries."
Denier added that the ergonomics issue will be brought up by the UFCW in coming elections. "And the politicians responsible for these guidelines will be held accountable," he said.