Chao says injuries show need for ergonomics rules

Thursday, March 29th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Work-related repetitive strain injuries and similar muscular disorders account for more than a third of all job injuries, demonstrating the need for a ``solid, comprehensive approach'' to new ergonomics rules, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao says.

Such injuries, however, decreased in 1999, the Labor Department announced Wednesday.

The latest numbers were released a week after President Bush signed a repeal of Clinton administration ergonomics rules aimed at reducing such injuries. Congress passed the repeal after a legislative fight waged by business interests and labor unions.

Chao said Wednesday the new figures show ``the need for a solid, comprehensive approach to ergonomics. It also points to a need to address injuries before they occur, through prevention and compliance assistance, rather than just rely on reactionary methods.''

About 1.7 million injuries and illnesses at private businesses required time off from work in 1999, dropping slightly from 1.73 million the previous year, the agency said. That followed steady declines since 1993, when 2.25 million job injuries were reported.

Of the total 1999 injuries reported, 582,300 were caused by repetitive motion, sprains or strains.

Truck drivers had the most reported total injuries, with 131,800 cases, followed by laborers, with 97,200 injuries, and nursing aides and orderlies, with 84,100 cases.

Men accounted for two out of three total injuries, and workers age 25 to 44 had 55 percent of the total injuries, the agency said.

Median days missed from work were highest for carpal tunnel syndrome at 27 days. Overall, injuries caused by repetitive motion, such as grasping tools, scanning groceries or typing, led to a median of 17 days off. Fractures led to a median of 20 days off and amputations 18 days off.

The ergonomics rules were issued late in the Clinton administration and were favored by unions. But business groups fought them, contending they were overreaching and too costly. Republicans led the effort to kill the rules with a little-known legislative weapon, the Congressional Review Act, that limited debate and allowed swift votes.

While the act prohibits any ``substantially similar'' rules from being issued, Chao has promised to address ergonomics-related injuries.

``I am committed to joining with unions, employers, safety professionals and Congress to develop an effective strategy to further reduce these injuries,'' she said. ``This is a serious problem.''

She has met with business executives, union officials and injured workers to discuss ergonomics. She also is considering voluntary guidelines for particular industries and is studying pending legislation, said Chao's spokeswoman, Stuart Roy.

A plan by Sen. John Breaux, D-La., would require the Labor Department to issue new rules within two years and would prohibit payments to injured workers that exceed those offered by states' workers' compensation programs.