OHSA, Business Spar Over Cost of Ergonomics Regulations
OSHA's new ergonomic regulations may cause a "big fight" that pits the federal agency and labor unions against corporate America, the
New York Times reports. Business groups estimate that complying with the new requirements may cost American companies between $18 billion and $120 billion a year and force employers to "redesign factories and offices" and establish "ergonomics bureaucracies" to oversee the new rules. OSHA contends that the rules would cost far less and save businesses $9 billion annually by reducing medical costs and lost productivity (Greenhouse, New York Times, 11/18). The new standard, intended to halve the 600,000 annual repetitive stress injuries over the next decade, will affect roughly six million businesses and more than 100 million workers "in nearly every line of business." Businesses may be required to change the height of assembly lines "to prevent workers from constant reaching" or offer "new keyboards or furniture to provide support for workers who type all day." The new rules will mandate that employers inform their workers about repetitive stress injuries and set up reporting procedures (California Healthline, 11/13). Patrick Cleary, vice president for human resources at the National Association of Manufacturers, said, "This is the largest regulation that OSHA has ever issued and probably more costly than anything else that the federal government has done in the workplace." Part of the problem, as businesses see it, is that employers would be responsible for injuries that did not occur in the workplace. Cleary added, "It's OSHA's first big step outside the workplace by defining injuries from elsewhere that are aggravated by work. It's reaching into the softball fields and bowling alleys." In addition, many executives say the rules are unnecessary, as musculoskeletal injuries have dropped in recent years. For its part, OSHA says the cost ascribed by employers to the rules is "unreasonable." OSHA Director Charles Jeffress said, "The biggest savings from the regulations will be in improved productivity and reduced workers' compensation costs. If injuries occur, you pay the worker, you pay the doctor, you pay the compensation costs, you lose productivity from someone being out and you have to train someone new. That's a significant cost." He added that many businesses are already implementing changes on a voluntary basis. "The fact that many businesses are finding this a profitable investment reassures me it's the right thing to do." Peg Seminario, director of health and safety at the AFL-CIO, which supports the rules, said, "We think the rules are the most significant action that OSHA has ever taken to protect workers. Musculoskeletal disorders are the biggest source of workplace injuries in this country."
The future of the ergonomic requirements remains uncertain, as many business groups say the federal courts should overturn the rules "on the grounds that they fail any cost-benefit analysis and are not based on scientific evidence." Congress recently attempted to delay introduction of the rules until a new president is appointed. Vice President Al Gore would likely support the Clinton administration's stance on the requirements while Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) would likely permit further congressional efforts to prevent enforcement of the rules (New York Times, 11/18).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.