Leading Scientists Accuse US Government of Distorting Science for Political Ends

Ergonomic experts boycott conference

by David Cohn
Published on Monday, January 26, 2004 by the Baltimore Sun


For more than two decades, Barbara Silverstein has studied work-related injuries. Among her many subjects have been nurses, meatpackers, truckers, foundry workers, autoworkers, poultry processors and loggers.

So was she happy when the federal government decided to sponsor a two-day symposium on workplace ailments?

Quite the contrary.
"It's an incredible waste," said Silverstein, an epidemiologist who works for the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries.
I think it's a political show, not a scientific meeting. It's using science in a very cynical way.

She's not the only scientist who feels that way: 11 of the country's leading ergonomists are boycotting the meeting, which begins tomorrow. They accuse the Bush administration of distorting science for political ends.

The highly unusual action has set off a harsh dispute between the administration and the researchers, who say more than enough evidence exists linking work to a variety of injuries.

They accuse industry and the administration of trying to avoid a debate over workplace regulations by questioning accepted ergonomic research. "It's a stall tactic," Silverstein said.

In a letter to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is sponsoring the meeting, the 11 scientists say it will only rehash questions that have been exhaustively researched and resolved.

"We were invited to participate in a symposium that isn't necessary," David Wegman, dean of the School of Health and Environment at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Gary Visscher, OSHA's deputy administrator, defended the meeting, saying it will cover new ground. "Time passes. There's new stuff coming in all the time," he said.

The boycott is the most recent round in a continuing fight over workplace-safety standards. Most ergonomic scientists, unions and workplace-safety advocates argue that some types of work and a variety of musculoskeletal injuries are clearly linked.

But many business and industry groups, the Bush administration, and a few scientists say the link remains unproven.

"There's got to be a certain level of proof before the government steps in. We're not there yet," said Randel Johnson, vice president for labor issues at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The stakes are enormous. Each year, at least 1 million Americans suffer significant work-related injuries, according to a 2001 report by the National Academies of Science.

These injuries, including wrist and hand problems among computer users and back, knee and shoulder ailments in construction workers and nurses, cost the economy about $50 billion a year, the report said.

Public health groups have long argued that federal ergonomic rules - the so-called ergonomic standard - would significantly reduce these injuries. But many industries oppose the rules, arguing that they lack any objective basis.

By focusing on what is portrayed as a scientific dispute, opponents of regulation effectively block any action, critics argue.

"It reminds me of the tobacco controversy of 40 years ago," said Dr. Bradley Evanoff, a professor of occupational medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, who studies injuries in nurses and hospital orderlies.

'Paralysis by analysis'

From industry's perspective, this strategy makes sense, opponents say. For many companies, any delay in carrying out ergonomic changes could save millions.

The OSHA meeting may be part of that strategy, said boycotter Don Chaffin, a University of Michigan industrial engineer, who has studied ergonomics for more than three decades.

"If enough people get up and say, 'We need to know more, we need to know more,' we'll end up with another comprehensive review. It's called paralysis by analysis," said Chaffin, who designs worker-friendly environments for large auto, aircraft and trucking companies, as well as the Army.

This isn't the first time the Bush administration has angered the scientific community. Critics in several disciplines have accused the White House of censoring scientific reports that conflict with its policies, packing federal advisory committees with industry-friendly researchers and obstructing research that could lead to new or tougher regulations.

But this dispute has become nasty, at least by the courteous standards of science. Last month, OSHA director John L. Henshaw questioned the boycotters' professionalism. "The good scientists will engage in the process and behave like responsible people," Henshaw told Inside OSHA, a newsletter that reports on the agency.

But even some of the symposium's supporters praise the critics' credentials. Among them is Dr. Edward Bernacki, director of Health, Safety and Environment at the Johns Hopkins University, who helped plan the OSHA symposium; he called its critics "very good" scientists.

Bernacki is a member of the National Advisory Committee on Ergonomics, a 15-person group assembled by OSHA in 2002. The group invited participants to the symposium to present "data-driven scientific research" on the relationship between the workplace and musculoskeletal disorders.

Critics note that since 1997, three comprehensive reports have found such a link - one sponsored by OSHA's research arm and two by the National Academy of Sciences at the request of Congress.

Most of the boycotters worked on at least one of the three reports. The latest NAS review, almost 500 pages long, not only found a clear link, but concluded that prevention programs could decrease work-related injuries.

In November 2000, President Bill Clinton issued regulations requiring companies to set up ergonomic workplace safety programs. But in one of its first major acts, the incoming Republican-majority Congress enacted a law invalidating the rules.

Under Bush, OSHA has focused on encouraging industry to create safer workplaces rather than on regulation. Critics suspect OSHA will use this week's symposium to further that agenda and conclude that the work-injury link is still too murky to warrant action.

"I think it's a political show, not a scientific meeting," said one boycotter, a university researcher who spoke on condition of anonymity, in part because he feared his federal grants might be denied. "It's using science in a very cynical way."

Bernacki defended the committee's independence, although he conceded that it did include some "hard-nosed business types."

Pro-business interests

But boycotters say NACE is stacked against regulation. "By and large, everyone on the committee was selected because of their opposition to the ergonomic standard," said University of California, San Francisco bioengineer David Rempel, who organized the boycott.

Committee members include Willis Goldsmith, a lawyer who worked on ergonomics issues for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Dr. Morton Kasdan, a Louisville hand surgeon who has testified for employers in workers compensation cases and has argued that musculoskeletal pain is often caused by depression.

Another member is James Koskan, the director of risk control for Supervalu, a Minneapolis-based supermarket conglomerate cited by OSHA last year for ergonomic violations.

Despite the protest and absence of top scientists, the meeting will go on as planned, said committee Chairman Carter Kerk, a biomechanics researcher at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. "We've gotten some excellent submissions, and we are going to have an excellent symposium."

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