Ergonomics vs Economics

Wanda Jackson’s fingers have almost turned in claws, and she cannot lift anything heavier than a milk carton. She blames hours of punching numbers into a computer for creating a “nervy” feeling in her right arm that has steadily worsened. Eventually she could no longer do her clerical job, and her bosses let her go.

Jackson recently began receiving Social Security disability payments, and she says she is in constant pain.

“Sometimes I just sit in the church, and it helps me mentally, because my main goal is to stay calm,” says the 41-year-old former employee of Northern Indiana Public Service Co. in Gary.

Almost a decade ago, the-Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole, said the government would set down rules to help protect workers from debilitating workplace injuries caused by such activities as lifting, pushing, pulling and repetitive motion.

Nothing ever came of Dole’s vow and organized labor now is locked with Corporate America in a political showdown over whether the government finally will step into the arena of ergonomics, the science of tailoring the workplace to workers.

More than 600,000 workers yearly suffer ergonomic-related injuries, and their injuries add up to one-third of all serious injuries, making ergonomic problems the single largest cause of serious injuries, according to Charles Jeffress, chief of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that regulates workplace safety.

The bill for treating these injuries averages about $20billionyearly, and the overall cost, taking in lost pay and production, Jeffress says, reaches about $60 billion annually.

The apparent size of the problem dictates government action, he says. Indeed, many experts believe the scope of the problem is under-reported. Calculations by the Bureau of Labor Statistics of all work-related injuries and illnesses requiring at least a day away from work suggest even higher numbers.

After being blocked by the Republicans and their business allies for the last few years from setting an ergonomics rule, OSHA plans to offer a much-watered down proposal in September.

All of OSHA’s rules are preventive, requiring companies to adhere to certain conditions to protect workers, but the ergonomics draft proposal is just the opposite It requires companies to work out ergonomic solutions after workers are injured.

The only exception is for the firms involved in manufacturing and manual labor: They would need prevention plans.

The decision of whether an injury is an ergonomic one would also be initially left up to the employer, a condition that concerns experts who say that firms can easily sweep the problems aside.

But Jeffress says medical staff who treat the injured workers will have the power to say whether the injury was ergonomic or not, and that, he suggests, should act as a check.

To some unions’ dismay, the proposal excludes workers in the construction, maritime and agriculture industries. The reason, according to Jeffress, is that the government has less experience in these industries’ ergonomic problems.

Still, business and GOP leaders expect to take steps again to block the agency.

“In our view, there is no clear cut evidence on the workplace causes musculoskeletal problems. This is something that could be very burdensome on small business and small businesses are scared to death,” says U.S. Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-MO).

Besides questioning the scientific rationale for a rule, the business community fears that any government regulation would be cumbersome to deal with and costly to carry out. It is a complex problem best left, business lobbyists say, to companies to work out by themselves.

“There is a general sense of skepticism when it comes to government intrusion in the workplace,” says Ed Gilroy, a lobbyist for the American Trucking Association and co-chairman of the National Coalition on Ergonomics, a group formed by more than 200 large companies several years ago to slow the government’s drive for an ergonomics standard in the workplace.

But OSHA officials cite dozens of studies over the years and support from most of the organizations that represent public health and medical professionals involved in treating workers hurt on the job.

Jeffress suggests that the roots of the opposition go much deeper than a debate over ergonomics. Much of it, he says, “comes from people who have objected to almost every rule OSHA has made.”

For the last few years, the number of ergonomic injuries as reported by the government, has been dropping, keeping up with an overall decline in workplace injuries. This is a point often raised by critics who say there is no reason to rush toward a solution.

But Barbara Silverstein, an ergonomist for the State of Washington, says the government’s figures are probably low, since workers’ compensation claims are tallied differently across the U.S.

Silverstein points out that in her state, which keeps more detailed workers’ compensation records than most states, ergonomic injuries are steady or growing.” And so, it is somewhat false to say that the problem is being resolved,” she ads.

The most publicity about ergonomic injuries undoubtedly has gone to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, the ailment that often afflicts computer users like Wanda Jackson who sit for hours doing the same repetitive work at a keyboard.

However, workers in manufacturing or manual labor jobs who push and pull are still the ones to suffer the most back, arm and leg injuries from a sudden exertion or whose injuries build up from doing the same work over time.

Whatever the category, many ergonomic injuries go unreported, experts say, because workers fear they will be let go if they admit their injuries. Or the workers take their problems to their own physicians and do not report them to their companies.

But neither is always true.

When faced with workers’ complaints several years ago about ergonomic injuries at the Rockten Co. paper box plant in Madison, Wis., the company heeded the workers’ concerns, and sought outside help.

Since then, the problem has significantly abated, says John Velardita, an official with the Paper Allied Chemical and Energy workers union, which represents the plant’s employees.

Gary Adreon, Midwest operations manager for the company, agrees that workers’ complaints have dropped by more than 50 percent since his firm sought the help of ergonomic experts.

Yet Adreon is hesitant about a government rule on the issue. “I guess they are needed in some instances, but government rules don’t make you safe, they make you caught,” he says.

Workplace Injuries

Number of work-related injuries and illnesses requiring one or more days away from work in 1997, by condition:

Injury DescriptionNumber of Injuries
Sprains, strains799,012
Bruises, contusions165,810
Cuts, lacerations, punctures56,722
Soreness, pain115,411
Multiple injuries59,803
Heat burns29,994
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome29,244
Chemical burns12,211