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Friday March 9, 2001

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No more safety on the job

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By Lora J. Mackel

After the speedy repeal of the ergonomic regulations implemented under the Clinton administration, there can be no doubt about who holds the power in Washington: businesses. National lawmakers, who voted largely among party lines, quickly repealed guidelines that had taken 10 years to outline.

The message sent by this swift action is that the American workers have no protection when the sizable donations that businesses give to legislators drown their voices out.

Each day, American workers go to work and risk repetitive motion injuries. The risk is posed to people in every industry sector, from the thousands of white-collar workers at their computers to the factory workers at an assembly line. Each year, 1.8 million Americans are injured at work. Sadly, most of their injuries are preventable.

Ergonomic regulations, which have been studied intensely for 10 years by the government under the Occupational Safety and Health administration, were adopted under the Clinton administration to combat this widespread problem.

Businesses did not like this at all.

Business lobbyists and advocates, since the regulations were passed, worked Republicans hard during the election to promise to overturn them. Congress has the authority to repeal presidential recommendations 60 days after an election, in the 1996 Congressional Review Act. After all the help (aka money) business gave the Republicans during the election, businesses demanded something back. Their payment included the ergonomic regulation's head on a platter, and was served steaming hot yesterday.

One has to wonder, why in the world would businesses do everything in their power to prevent regulation to help their workers? Businesses justify their stance by saying the regulations would cost them too much to implement. The business community claims that ergonomic standards would cost them $100 billion and force companies into bankruptcy.

These arguments against the standards are ridiculous for several reasons. First of all, if businesses are so hard for money, they could cut corners by ceasing to donate so much to the Republican party.

Secondly, the ergonomic regulations only recommend that new equipment be brought into companies where two or more employees sustain injuries in a span of 18 months. Thirdly and most importantly, non-injured workers are infinitely less expensive than injured workers.

Before making their regulations, the OSHA estimated that businesses would only spend $4.5 billion to implement them. Additionally, the agency estimated that businesses would save $9 billion by keeping their workers healthy.

Implementing ergonomic regulations is in the best interest of business. Having a healthy work environment might put an initial strain on the finances of businesses, but the investment pays off in higher worker productivity. Not only that, but protecting the health of workers is just decent policy.

Businesses, by virtue of doing what they do, are pragmatic. They must see the advantages to healthy workers. But clearly they would rather gamble with the lives of their employees than shell out money to prevent injuries.

Sadly, this cavalier attitude about employee health is permitted by our national legislators. Businesses donate their way into affecting policy, and a million people suffer completely unnecessary.

The majority of Republican congressmen who worked so fast to dismantle 10 years of investment on the behalf of the American worker should feel nothing but shame for themselves. Not even subtly, they let every American citizen know that money controls legislative policies.

In the end, repealing the ergonomic standards will end up hurting American industry as much as the millions of injured workers. Billions of dollars will flow out of businesses to pay for the repetitive motion injuries that could have been prevented with minimal effort.

This seedy chapter of Congressional history should remind us about the inherent evil of the campaign donation system. When businesses control our legislators, the best interest of the people is never served.