Secretary Elaine Chao


Ergonomics Hearing Opening Remarks, George Mason University

Welcome to George Mason University, and thank you all for coming to this important event. I’m delighted to see so many interested people here today. This is the first of three public hearings the Department of Labor will hold on the issue of ergonomics over the course of the next two weeks.

As Secretary of Labor, I’m charged with a remarkably broad range of responsibilities, ranging from workforce training to protecting America’s pensions. But nothing is more fundamental than protecting the health and safety of America’s workforce. And that’s why we’re all here today - to examine the complex issues related to musculoskeletal disorders in the workforce and to find ways to reduce them.

This is one of the most complex and challenging workplace safety issues the Department of Labor has ever looked at. More than twenty years after the Department hired its first ergonomics specialist, we are still working to develop a consensus about how to best reduce - or even eliminate - musculoskeletal disorders without unreasonably compromising the American economy. We need to find a way of approaching this issue that reflects the diversity of the American workforce, and American workplaces.

We want American workers to be safe - but we also want them to have jobs. Placing unnecessarily onerous regulations on America’s employers won’t help American workers - it will only help put them out of work. And creating an unworkable, unrealistic rule that requires small businesses to understand and comply with hundreds of pages of complex regulations won’t help anyone - workers or their employers.

At the same time, allowing preventable injuries to occur won’t help American businesses either - the cost, whether it’s measured in lost productivity, increased workers’ comp premiums, or dissatisfied employees - isn’t worth it.

I believe there’s a reasonable middle ground to be found - a way to protect both workers and their jobs, fairly, effectively, and efficiently - and today’s hearing, and the larger process we’re going through now, is an important step forward in that process.

Throughout history, we’ve made steady progress in our efforts to protect the health and safety of American workers. Workplace deaths and injuries have fallen dramatically over the last century. And recently, injuries related to ergonomics have fallen as well, even without comprehensive federal regulations.

We need to build upon these successes, and find ways for America’s employers and America’s employees to work together to pursue their common goal - a healthy and productive workforce. The foundation for future progress must be cooperation and prevention, rather than merely adversarial “command and control” regulations. While regulation has its place, we must never lose sight of the goal: protecting American workers and their jobs in the most cost-effective manner possible. That is a goal we all share, and we must find a common approach to pursuing it.

Our efforts to work with the meatpacking industry over the last 10 years demonstrate how successful a voluntary approach to ergonomics can be.

In 1990, OSHA published ergonomics guidelines for the red meat industry, since the industry suffered from an unacceptably high injury rate to its workers - 20.2 cases per 100 employees - many of which were musculoskeletal-related. Many firms followed those guidelines, and the results were dramatic: Injuries dropped 39 percent, down to only 12.3 per 100 workers, and injuries that caused employees to miss work dropped twice as fast - from six and a half per 100 workers to only two per 100 - a 70 percent reduction.
Although these guidelines initially arose from an enforcement action, this experience does demonstrate the potential effectiveness of voluntary, industry-specific ergonomics guidelines. We need to look closely at this experience, as well as other ergonomics issues in other industries, to find ways to build upon our success in reducing ergonomics injuries in the last decade.

If we are to find common ground, I think we need to reach some general level of agreement on certain facts and philosophies that might underpin a successful new approach to ergonomics regulations. There are six general principles that I think we should consider as we move forward in this process:

First, our primary goal should be prevention of injuries. And I am delighted to say that significant progress has already been made in this endeavor. Musculoskeletal disorders that cause employees to miss work have declined significantly in recent years, down from more than three-quarters of a million in 1993 to 582,300 in 1999. More Americans are working more hours, yet injuries have declined 25 percent. That’s real progress.

Nevertheless, musculoskeletal disorders still cause nearly one-third of all work-related injuries. If we’re going to solve this problem, we need to figure out why we’ve been able to make progress so far, and how to build upon that success.

Secondly, any action must be guided by sound science. That is our best hope for developing effective, consensus approaches to this complex problem.

Third, our actions should be incentive-driven. Our safety inspectors believe that 95 percent of employers are acting in good faith. And that makes sense - any smart employer understands that best safety practices are good for workers and good for business. That common interest should be the foundation for sensible, cooperative approaches to addressing this issue.

Fourth, I believe that flexibility is the key to effectively addressing a complex problem. We must recognize the unique nature of individual workplaces, and avoid an unworkable one-size-fits-all approach. One of the biggest weaknesses of the previous standard was its universal nature. Every workplace is different and will need different tools and approaches to prevent ergonomic injuries.

Fifth is the need for clarity. In whatever actions we take, the Department owes it to everyone involved to provide clear guidance. No one can follow directions that they can’t understand. The previous ergonomics standard took up over 600 pages, including preambles and appendices. Small business owners, lacking the legal resources to understand and comply with such complex regulations, were understandably frightened. To be effective, a new approach to ergonomics must include short, simple, and common sense instructions for employers and their employees.

Sixth and finally, I think we need to keep in mind that the bottom line for our approach to this issue must be feasibility. Many businesses felt that the cost of the previous standard would have been a crushing burden. We need an ergonomics standard that works - not one that puts Americans out of work.

And that’s why I’ve convened this hearing, and the two that will follow, and solicited public comment on these issues - because I think we can all work together to develop an approach to this issue that is practical and effective.
To focus our discussion, I’ve asked people who are testifying to specifically address three critical questions.

First, what is an ergonomics injury? How do we identify one? We need a clear definition that OSHA, employers and employees can understand and apply.

Secondly: How can we determine whether an ergonomics injury was caused by work-related activities or non-work-related activities? If it was a combination of the two, what is the appropriate response?

And third: What are the most useful and cost-effective ways for government to address workplace ergonomics injuries? Options range from rulemaking, guidelines, and best practices to publications, conferences, technical assistance, consultations and partnerships - or some combination of those approaches.

Defining the best, comprehensive approach for ergonomic injuries is not a simple process. Ergonomic injuries can be caused by repetitive motions in the workplace - or elsewhere. While we are focused on workplace injuries, determining where a worker developed a tissue strain - and consequently, who is responsible for it - is difficult. There is no set formula - no tables, or standards, or equation that permits us to simply plug in a worker’s injury and instantly determine its history.

So we’re going to need to get back to basic questions, and set aside the heated rhetoric and emotions and try to work together to establish the facts as we know them, and share some good, practical ideas. If we work together, I think this process can be effective.
Thank you for coming.