The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has unveiled a voluntary plan to reduce ergonomic injuries. The proposed plan immediately garnered praise from business groups and criticism from work-safety advocates.

The safety agency's announcement came more than a year after pressure from the business community resulted in the revocation of a mandatory standard issued by the Clinton administration that would have penalized employers for failing to take action to prevent repetitive strain injuries, which affect 1.8 million workers each year.

"This plan is a major improvement over the rejected old rule because it will prevent ergonomics injuries before they occur and reach a much larger number of at-risk workers," U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said in a written statement.

Under the proposal released yesterday, the government said it would establish a national advisory committee to conduct research on ergonomics concerns. Additionally, the government said, guidelines for certain targeted industries would be released over the course of the year.

Work-safety representatives criticized the plan for failing to identify industries where ergonomic injuries are most prevalent and for not specifying when actual guidelines would be released or what they would entail. They added that guidelines lack the teeth necessary to prevent companies from violating or ignoring safety measures.

"This is a meaningless, hollow measure that, yet again, delays action and provides workers no real protection," said Peg Seminario, health and safety director at the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C. "There is no legal protection, and they haven't even identified which industries will be targeted for enforcement." Business groups, which said they could lose as much as $125 billion per year if a mandatory standard is passed into law, praised the Bush administration's voluntary plan. "The Department of Labor's decision to set up a national advisory committee on ergonomics and provide guidance on preventing ergonomics injuries is a helping hand in contrast to the Clinton administration's menacing fist regulatory approach," the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents small business, said in a statement.

John Henshaw, the assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, said the agency plans to develop a recognition program to highlight workplaces with exemplary approaches to ergonomics, and it would designate 10 regional coordinators to do enforcement, outreach, and assistance. He said the advisory committee would work with the National Institute of Occuational Safety and Health to develop new research.