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New Ergonomics Rules Target At-Risk Jobs

U.S. will now ask business to police itself

FRIDAY, April 5, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Labor officials released a new plan today to combat workplace injuries that will ask trouble-prone industries to police themselves more vigorously.

The policy is the Bush Administration's answer to much broader Clinton-era regulations scuttled by Congress last year. Rather than applying to all employers, the new plan focuses on a handful of industries and tasks.

As expected, the policy won applause from business groups, who thought the Clinton rules were too broad and costly, and scorn from employee unions, who think the new rules are too vague and give their concerns the brush-off.

Employers in these areas, which labor officials have not yet designated, will be asked to implement ways to protect their employees from repetitive stress injuries and other workplace problems. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) will also offer its own guidelines in the coming months.

"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," Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said in a statement today.

The Clinton regulations made ergonomics a specific category for OSHA enforcement. Under the new rule, these issues fall under the agency's "General Duty clause," a catchall for matters with no particular home.

To enforce its guidelines, OSHA said it "will crack down on bad actors by coordinating inspections with a legal strategy designed for successful prosecution." The agency will also train inspectors to help prosecutors punish businesses that ignore the policy. Other components of the plan include employer education and outreach efforts.

An estimated 3.6 million people in this country suffer musculoskeletal disorders -- such as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis and back injuries -- while working. About a third of these are hurt seriously enough to warrant disability time. Women are particularly vulnerable to these joint, muscle and bone problems.

Although the cost to employers of implementing the Clinton rules was projected to be about $150 per work space, or $4.2 billion overall, labor officials at the time said the savings in reduced disability payments and improved productivity could top $9 billion. Business groups claimed the cost of implementing and enforcing the rules would top $100 billion.

Peter Eide, director of labor law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the Bush plan "has to be better" than the Clinton rules, which he called "impossible to enforce."

Eide said his group hadn't had a chance to assess the economic impact of the latest proposal, but said it was sure to be "a lot less" than the more sweeping regulation.

James August, a workplace safety expert at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Washington, D.C., called the new plan "ludicrous" and "pathetic."

"The problem is it just doesn't get it done," said August, whose group supported the Clinton-era rules. "It's not that we don't know how to correct these problems. If [businesses] wanted to do this voluntarily, there has been plenty of information out there" to show them how, he said.

What's more, he added, OSHA offered no timetable for when it would add other troubled industries to its list of those with injury problems. "How long would this drag out?"

Supporters of a federal ergonomics standard have been dismayed by the Bush Administration's evident distaste for such a policy. In addition to signing a bill repealing the Clinton rules, Bush recently took advantage of a Congressional recess to install Eugene Scalia, an outspoken critic of ergonomics, as the Labor Department's top lawyer. Scalia, son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, has called the field "quackery" and "junk science," and argued that workers most likely to complain about muscle and joint pain don't like their jobs.

John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, called Scalia's appointment "a slap in the face of American workers" in a statement posted on the union's Web site.

What To Do

For more information on the new rules, visit OSHA. To learn more about the science of ergonomics, check out the Center for Ergonomics at the University of Michigan College of Engineering.

To learn more about typing injuries, click here.

SOURCES: James August, director, occupational safety and health, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Washington, D.C.; Peter J. Eide, director of labor law policy, Chamber of Commerce, Washington, D.C.; Occupational Safety and Health Administration
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