OSHA TARGETS REPETITION INJURIES: Pro-business groups attack proposed ergonomic standards

After being blocked for years by congressional and business opponents, the federal workplace safety agency on Friday unveiled a sweeping proposal that would require employers to reduce repetitive stress and other ergonomic injuries to workers.

The new standards could eventually affect tens of millions of workers in factories, warehouses and even offices, causing employers to modify workplace conditions that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says injure more than 647,000 Americans a year.

Such injuries-including carpal tunnel syndrome, muscle strains, tendinitis and lower back pain-account for more than 34% of all lost work days due to injury and illness and $15 billion to $20 billion in workers’ compensation costs, the agency said.

But OSHA had barely gone public with the proposed rules when pro-business groups attacked them as vague, burdensome and scientifically unjustified. On Capitol Hill, Rep. Cass Ballenger, a North Carolina Republican who chairs a House committee on workplace protection, said House Republicans will fight the “ill-conceived” regulations.

The proposed rules would cover employers whose businesses include manufacturing or manual-handling operations. Employers in the latter category, for example, would range from overnight shipping companies where

where workers handle boxes to health-care facilities where employees lift patients.

The rules, as they appear in the draft proposal, would not automatically apply to companies falling outside those categories. Instead, these businesses would become subject to the rules upon an employee’s report of a musculoskeletal injury. That’s how companies whose office workers suffer repetitive stress injuries from using their computer keyboards would fall under the law.

Companies would be required to set up ergonomic programs to prevent work-related muscle, joint and soft tissue injuries. Ergonomics is the science of tailoring jobs to workers in a way that reduces physical problems while increasing efficiency.

OSHA’s proposed rules would likely lead to many businesses addressing the causes of worker injuries through a variety of methods; slowing down production lines, adding equipment such as conveyors to save workers from repetitive lifting tasks or even providing new, ergonomically correct chairs and workstations.

Over the years, lawmakers and business interests have criticized OSHA for seeking to impose costly ergonomic standards on employers without enough scientific evidence to support the need for such regulations.

Since 1995, congressional Republicans attached riders to appropriation bills preventing OSHA, an agency within the Labor Department, from drafting these rules. The restriction expired in October, enabling OSHA to proceed.

“I believe that the sentiment has swung, that there will be political support for proceeding with this rule,” OSHA Administrator Charles Jeffress said in an interview. “People are recognizing that there is sound science here. There are real people getting hurt. Real people with real problems and that there are solutions that will fix these problems.”

Jeffress said a little more than 2 million US workplaces, about a third of the nation’s total, would be covered by OSHA’s planned rules.

Groupls representing business disputed OSHA’s assertion that scientific evidence on workplace injuries supported the need for the new rules.

Robb Mackie, vice president for government relations of the American Bakers Association and member of the National Coalition on Ergonomics, said, “There is no consensus in the medical and scienctific communities as to the clear causes and remedies for repetitive stress injuries.

“Without a basic scientific understanding, an ergonomic regulation today is just guesswork,” Mackie added.

But Jeffress said OSHA has received support from medical groups; the American College of Occupational and Environmental Physicians, the American Occupational Health Nurses and the American Public Health Association.

The National Academy of Sciences last year held a conference where experts concluded that “there are biomechanical stresses in the workplace that cause these injuries and… there are interventions employers can make to reduce those stresses and injuries,” Jeffress said.

Tom Sullivan, regulatory policy counsel for the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents about 600,000 small and independent businesses, said the proposed rules would impose an unfair burden on companies, particularly small ones. Sullivan said small businesses, with 10 or fewer employees already have injury and illness rates that are less than half the national average for employers.

The proposed OSHA rules, he said, would impose a disproportionate hardship on the small businesses his group represents.

“It’s unfortunate because the folks that will have to implement this among our members are not vice presidents of safety,” Sullivan said. “They’re not the corporate officer in charge of the ergonomics department. It’s the owner.

“And it’s the same owner that has to fill out the tax returns, it’s the same owner that has to answer the interrogatories from a (lawsuit) if there’s a slip and fall. The last thing we want our members to have to do, after they’ve already been forced to hire an accountant and lawyer, is to hire an industrial hygienist because OSHA has figured out it wants another set of rules.”

The proposed standards are scheduled to be reviewed for two months by a special panel that will examine the impact on small businesses. Later, the rules would be placed in the Federal Register for public comment. After revisions, they would be official.

By: Frank James, Washington Bureau
Chicago Tribune, February 21, 1999