Controversial Ergonomics Standards Coming

November 13, 2000 ( - New ergonomics standards from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) could be issued today - but the controversial measure is currently embroiled in the stalled budget negotiations.

The standards are the result of a process that began in 1989, but were formally published for comment only late last year.  They are backed organized labor, but vigorously opposed by the business community, including the US Chamber of Commerce.

The standard would go into effect Jan. 16, 2001, with businesses coming into compliance by October.

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The Damage Done

According to OSHA, 1.8 million workers have musculoskeletal injuries related to ergonomic factors, and 600,000 people miss some work because of them annually. Ergonomics is the science of tailoring a job to the worker to prevent injuries caused by wear and tear on the body.
Under the final rules, once a musculoskeletal injury is reported, the employer would have to see if it exposes workers to certain risk factors, and take steps to reduce the hazard. 

Specific factors include:

  • Repeating the same motions every few seconds
  • Using a keyboard or mouse for more than four hours a day
  • Repeatedly working with the hands above the head for more than two hours a day
  • Using vibrating tools or equipment for more than two hours per day.

Bottled Up?

Acknowledging opposition from Republicans, the White House opted to allow OSHA to issue the rules this year but delay implementation until next year, allowing the next president to either approve or block the measure.  Still, Republican leaders are concerned that once the measure is issued, it might be difficult to put the genie back in the bottle.

The ergonomics provision is part of the $350 billion labor-health-education spending bill, one of the items still to be enacted by Congress for fiscal 2001.

Pick A Number

OSHA says the rules would cost businesses some $4.5 billion to implement but would reap $9 billion a year in savings from medical expenses and workers’ compensation.

Other cost estimates for the program vary widely, including:

  • Employment Policy Foundation: $125.6 billion a year
  • National Coalition on Ergonomics: more than $90 billion a year
  • United Parcel Service: $20 billion initially, $5 billion a year (double the company’s annual net income)
  • National Association of Manufacturers: $18 billion a year

What Lies Ahead

According to the Wall Street Journal, companies may have to:

  • Implement an ergonomics program
  • Educate employees on risk factors, signs and symptoms of musculoskeletal disorders (MSD)
  • Analyze problem jobs and make appropriate changes
  • Conduct training initially  – and at least once every three years
  • Provide injured employees who are unable to work with 90% of wages and 100% of benefits for up to 90 days
  • Offer workers put on light duty as a result of an injury 100% of their wages and benefits

The standard does not apply to agriculture, maritime, construction or railroad industries.