OSHA Sets Standards To Limit Repetitive Stress Injuries In The Workplace

The Clinton administration issued sweeping new ergonomic safety regulations for workers Monday including up to 90 days employer paid sick leave for people injured on the job.

Business groups denounced the new rules, which go into effect starting January 16, 2001, saying they will cost employers billions of dollars while doing little to ensure worker safety.

The regulations are intended to protect workers from ergonomic injuries-carpal tunnel syndrome, among people who use computer keyboards, for example, or back injuries among people who load luggage on aircraft.

Approximately 600,000 people suffer on-the-job ergonomic injuries each year, at a cost of $9 billion according to government statistics. Many of them are hurt by jobs requiring repetitious physical movement that over time causes injury and disability.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began work on ergonomic regulations a decade ago, but, until recently, Congress had blocked the agency from issuing rules.

Estimates of the cost to business vary wildly. OSHA says the rules will cost employers about $4.5 billion a year. The business oriented Employment Policy Foundation, however, estimates the standards will cost nearly $126 billion a year.

“We just didn’t expect nor do we want this sort of regulation during a lame-duck administration,” said Jerry Roper, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. “This is the kind of regulation that is going to be very costly to business.”

Many businesses, Roper said, expect disgruntled employees to make accusations to OSHA based on the new regulations simply to cause trouble for their employers.

But Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO, said the rules are necessary to curtail workplace injuries that are epidemic in many occupations.

“About one-third of all serious workplace injuries are caused by ergonomic hazards,” Seminario said. “Across all sectors of the economy, these injuries are very, very serious.”

The regulations offer new protection to employees hurt on the job.

An employee unable to work must be paid 90 percent of earnings and benefits for up to 90 days while off the job. Employers cannot reduce the wages and benefits of workers temporarily assigned to light duty or alternative jobs.

“Employers must train workers to recognize and report ergonomic injuries. And employers must investigate such reports, determine if a hazard exists, and then try to reduce the risk. Employers must also include employee input in assessing and preventing risks.

That does not mean employees will have a say in the running of the their workplace, according to OSHA.

“There is nothing in here that requires and employer to take the advice of employees,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor Charles Jeffress, who heads OSHA. “This is not mandating that employees control the process-this is mandating that employers listen.”

An earlier version of the regulations could have covered home offices, raising the specter of labor investigators touring residences in search of violations. But OSHA said the most recent version of the regulations excludes home offices.

The regulations definitely do cover companies like UPS, the parcel delivery giant, which employs 21, 000 people in the greater Chicago area. Many UPS workers engage in repetitive physical tasks that can cause ergonomic injuries.

UPS for its part, says the rules are too broadly written.

The regulations had been held in limbo for so many years, many believed they would never be issued.

As recently as last week, the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce said it thought they wee unlikely to be adopted anytime soon.

After the rules were announced, the National Association of Manufacturers said it would sue to overturn them, and dozens of other businesses asked that they be revised or rescinded.

And on Monday the rules touched off yet another dispute between the White House and Republican lawmakers.

Sen. Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) called the regulations “a monument to regulatory excess,” while Rep. Bill Goodling (R-Pa.) who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said the new standards follow “a pattern of overstepping authority and issuing controversial new policies.”

Both the Republican-controlled House and Senate opposed OSHA’s plans to issue the rules before the National Academy of Sciences completed its own ergonomics study.

Given the Republican opposition, the White House had offered to allow OSHA to issue the rules this year but put off implementing them until next June, allowing the next president the chance to block them.

But GOP leaders balked, saying that once the rules were issued the new president might have a hard time rescinding them.

“For them to issued the rules pretty much blows up everything,” said House Republican Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, an ardent opponent of the ergonomics standards. “It’s like pulling a string from a bad sweater. It unravels everything.”

But Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota applauded the move, insisting that the regulations should not now be revisited.

By Robert Manor
Chicago Tribune