Early Warnings on Ergonomics

March 1, 2003
New ergonomic regulations buried inside a 300-pagedocument proposed late last year by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have caught

New ergonomic regulations buried inside a 300-pagedocument proposed late last year by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have caught the attention of many business leaders and trade organizations because of their potential expense and broad impact on employers.

If the standards are enacted, a single work-related musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) injury-including the very common carpal tunnel syndrome-would force a company to implement a detailed ergonomics program. If the standard becomes law, companies would have to designate a person to manage an ergonomics initiative, and provide employees with information on injury risks, signs and symptoms of MSDs, job hazard analysis and control, training, and MSD management and control.

Injured employees would be guaranteed healthcare and follow-up care for work-related injuries, 90 percent of wages and 100 percent of benefits while recuperating. Light-duty workers are guaranteed 100 percent of wages. Since the standards cover any MSD "directly related to the physical work activities of the job the employee performs," they will apply to all manufacturing and manual handling jobs ranging from filing to heavy lifting.

"While we would admit that the issue needs to be addressed, it needs to be addressed with the most modern science and technology," says Ron Reese of the National Association of Wholesalers-Distributors (NAW), Washington. "We don't think OSHA has taken that approach at this point."

OSHA based the proposed standards on more than 1,400 studies that were evaluated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and feels that more study will result in the same conclusions. But many business owners and business lobby groups feel OSHA has proceeded without prudent study. The NAS is currently conducting another study on the connection between MSD and repetitive movements performed on the job.

"From our perspective, we think they should wait until the National Academy of Sciences has completed its taxpayer-funded study on musculoskeletal disorders," says Reese.

Ergonomics, simply defined, is the science of fitting the job to the worker. The sweeping standards are designed to protect the estimated 300,000 workers per year who suffer from work-related injuries or disorders of the muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage and spinal discs, collectively known as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) according to OSHA. One of the most common MSDs is carpal-tunnel syndrome, which is caused by repetitive minute tasks and can leave afflicted workers unable to perform the simplest of tasks. As written, the standards do not apply to workers in the agriculture, construction and maritime fields. Those industries will be covered under future legislation, OSHA says.

Although the document weighs in at a hefty 311 pages, some business leaders feel the document is, at best, vague and-due to the incentive of the cost of health insurance and worker's compensation-unnecessary. For example, the document does not make it clear as to when an employer is in compliance, and it does not spell out exactly how many repetitions are too many, how much lifting is too much. It also gives employers no guidance on exactly how to control potential MSD problems.

"If OSHA has its way, there's no doubt in my mind that these regulations will go into effect," says Reese. "That means the business community and others involved in this are going to urge that OSHA takes a step back and reexamines this."

To force OSHA to reexamine the regulations, business leaders have engaged in a vigorous letter-writing campaign to extend the comment period until the second NAS study has been completed.

Legislators have taken action against the proposed standard. Republican Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond of Missouri introduced "The Sensible Ergonomics Needs Scientific Evidence Act," a bill signed by 62 other members of Congress that will force OSHA to wait until the second NAS study is completed before any action is taken.

John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO labor union, calls the attempt to block the OSHA proposal "an unrelenting and mean-spirited campaign by business groups and anti-worker members of Congress." The Teamsters have also voiced support for the standards in the interest of its members and have initiated its own letter-writing campaign in order to push the legislation through during the sympathetic Clinton administration. The comment period on the regulations has been extended from Feb. 1 to March 2. OSHA hopes to have the regulations in place later this year.