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Industry, Gov’t Team Up on Ergonomics

Apparel and footwear groups are voluntarily signing alliances with the government in an effort to reduce ergonomic injuries in the workplace.

WASHINGTON — Apparel and footwear groups are voluntarily signing alliances with the government in an effort to reduce ergonomic injuries in the workplace at the same time the Department of Labor steps up enforcement of health and safety violations.

The Labor Department announced Tuesday that it plans to step up enforcement on employers who continue to “defy” worker safety and health regulations.

Meanwhile, the American Apparel & Footwear Association and the International Mass Retail Association have signed separate alliances with the Occupational Safety & Health Administration to work on injury and illness prevention.

“This is strictly a way to put teeth into our enforcement of companies we have already issued citations to or provided outreach to and who still continue to flaunt the rules,” said an OSHA spokesman.

OSHA plans to “strengthen” five areas, including follow-up inspections, programmed inspections, public awareness, settlements and federal court enforcement. The initiative will impact companies that have received OSHA citations with the highest severity of willful violations, multiple serious violations, repeat violations, failure-to-abate notices or a serious or willful violation associated with a fatality.

The New York Times reported Tuesday that the announcement was expected.

As part of its agreement with OSHA, AAFA said it will provide members with information and guidance to help protect employees’ health and safety, particularly in reducing exposure to ergonomic hazards and provide training on ergonomic techniques, program structure and applications. IMRA plans to unveil its alliance today at its Loss Prevention, Auditing & Safety Conference in Orlando.

“This agreement signed with OSHA was a signal from the association that our industry wants to support safety in the workplace and safety is not achieved by developing a new standard, but rather by companies looking at safety as good business,” said Kevin Burke, president of AAFA.

The voluntary alliances have drawn criticism from UNITE, which claims there are many apparel, textile and footwear companies that don’t belong to the associations and will not participate in the ergonomics and training sessions. UNITE argued for new regulations after the Bush administration in late 2001 repealed the Clinton administration’s workplace rules designed to protect workers from repetitive motion and other stress-related musculoskeletal injuries.

Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said her agency would develop voluntary guidelines and not issue new regulations.

“These alliances are OSHA’s weak substitute for an effective enforcement program on ergonomic issues,” said Eric Frumin, health and safety director at UNITE. “Once [the agency] eliminates the standard, Labor has to pull together a much more detailed picture of a higher level of abuse to use existing authority.”

OSHA’s spokesman said in a statement: “The general duty clause requires employers to keep their workplaces free from any recognized hazard, including ergonomics, and that requirement exists whether or not an employer uses voluntary guidelines. We’ve said on numerous occasions that we will not be enforcing guidelines, but we will focus our efforts on those companies that have not acted in good faith.”

In addition, he noted OSHA’s track record on safety and health citations. OSHA inspectors oversee 26 states while 24 states and two territories operate their own federally approved programs.

For the fiscal year 2002, OSHA cited 78,479 safety and health violations in the 26 states and assessed penalties of $73.3 million. The 24 states and two U.S. territories cited 144,075 violations during the same fiscal year and assessed penalties of $75.8 million.

Any violations and penalties for ergonomics falls within the broad category known as the “general duty clause,” which is a clause for citations where no standards exist. In the year, OSHA cited 1,281 violations and assessed penalties of $2.8 million under this clause, which includes a broad range of areas where standards do not exist.