OSHA Issues New Ergonomics Rules Opposed by Business
The Occupational Safety and Health Administrationis "expected" to issue a final ergonomics ruling today "to protect workers from the repetitive strains and pain of the workplace," the Washington Post reports. 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." The rule, however, is "bitterly opposed" by business groups, and it is being introduced because "a congressional move to block its unveiling torpedoed a year-end budget agreement with the White House," necessitating the lame-duck Congress session (Skrzycki, Washington Post, 11/11). Last month, President Clinton vetoed an $18.1 billion spending bill funding the operation of the Treasury Department, White House and Congress in retaliation for Republican congressional leaders' backing out of a compromise to implement the ergonomics rule under the FY 2001 Labor-HHS-Education spending bill. Although implementation, under the compromise, would have been delayed until June -- giving Republicans the chance to overturn the rule if Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) is elected president -- the business community wanted to deny labor unions the added leverage they would have gained if the rules had been established in the first place California Healthline, 10/31). House Republican leaders also "insisted that the labor and education bill contain language barring lawsuits against the next administration should it decide to rescind the rule," since a reversal would be subject to judicial review. As it stands now, the new regulations will be subject to a "60-day comment period" before OSHA begins to enforce them, which means they would take effect "just before the next president is inaugurated on Jan. 20" (Holmes, New York Times, 11/11). Businesses will have to comply with the regulations by next October (AP/Baltimore Sun, 11/11).
Under the new regulations, first proposed by the Clinton administration last November, employers will have to "better fit jobs to the physical limitations of their workers." This requirement will likely include such measures as changing the height of assembly lines "to prevent workers from constant reaching" or providing "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. Employees who suffer work-related injuries must receive medical treatment and paid time off from work for 90 days. One in four businesses already have ergonomics programs, and some of these "would likely have to do little more than inform workers of the new standard." Employers who report one injured worker can do a "quick fix" within 90 days, but those who report two injuries in the same category within 18 months are subject to the "full requirements of the rule." OSHA head Charles Jeffress said, "We have recognized that musculoskeletal disorders are a significant part of the injuries and illness in America. We have needed a better tool to address this. These injuries have declined, but they still remain a third of all workplace injuries." The new rule is also supported by labor unions. Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO, said, "After a 10-year struggle, it's an important action to protect workers that is long overdue."
Employer groups have already vowed to challenge the new regulations. Stephen Bokat, vice president and general counsel for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said, "It exceeds [OSHA's] statutory authority, it's unconstitutionally vague and there is no scientific basis for the standard." Business groups also argue that the new standards are unnecessary because workplace injuries are on the decline. Their objection to the new rule centers mostly on its potential cost and its "broadness and vagueness." OSHA has calculated that the new regulations will cost businesses $4.5 billion a year, but in the long run will save them $9.1 million annually because of reduced workplace injuries and greater productivity. Business groups dispute the former figure, stating that the cost will run from $18 billion to $125.6 billion a year. Also, business groups believe that the new rules do not allow employers to distinguish between workplace and non-workplace injuries. Patrick Cleary, vice president of human resources policy for the National Association of Manufacturers, said, "The biggest beef we have is the absolute inability [on the part of business] to discern what part of any injury is attributable to work and non-work factors. If you have tennis elbow only from playing tennis and something at work aggravates it, the employer is on the hook" (Washington Post, 11/11). Industry officials believe this vagueness in the new rules could contribute to "an explosion of worker's compensation claims (New York Times, 11/11). According to the Post, OSHA did attempt to mitigate some of these concerns before issuing the final rule by shortening the length of time-off with pay for injured workers from six months to 90 days and by "offering guidance to employers on how to evaluate complaints" (Washington Post, 11/11). Still, issuing the new ergonomics rule is likely only to intensify the ongoing debate. As one "high-ranking Republican official" said, "There will be lots of people gnashing their teeth" (New York Times, 11/11).