National ergonomics rules proposed; business groups object | Action to prevent stress injuries could be required
WASHINGTON -- Employers should take steps to prevent certain on-the-job
stress injuries, such as carpal-tunnel syndrome and back strains, a federal
agency said yesterday in proposed industry standards.
If approved, the standards could force certain employers -- mainly in the
industrial sector -- to alter work stations, redesign facilities or change
tools and equipment.
Setting a national standard would alleviate the burden on multistate
businesses from complying with "a patchwork quilt of different ergonomics
rules in different states," Occupational Safety and Health Administration
Administrator Charles N. Jeffress told reporters.
Business groups, which long have fought such standards, objected.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce urged OSHA to wait for the National Academy of
Sciences to finish its study on whether there is a scientific basis for
national ergonomics standards.
"This hopelessly vague draft is a blank check for OSHA inspectors," said
Peter Eide, the chamber's manager for labor law. "It would require all
American businesses to become full-time experts in ergonomics, a field for
which there is little if any credible evidence."
After a lengthy battle between labor and management groups, California
adopted ergonomic rules for the workplace in July 1997 and is currently
enforcing the new standards.
"The proposed federal standard is certainly more comprehensive than the one
we have in place," said Len Welsh, a Cal-OSHA attorney. "So we would
certainly have to review ours and make sure it is as effective if the
federal standard is adopted."
Welsh said the 1 1/2 -page California ergonomic standard has three main
parts that cover engineering and work practices, work site evaluations and
The Cal-Osha attorney said the lengthier federal standard is more specific,
covering additional areas such as hazard identification and correction,
record keeping and medical management.
The chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee's panel on
work force protections said he would fight against what he called the
"ill-conceived" federal regulation until there is scientific proof to back
"Medical researchers must answer fundamental questions surrounding
ergonomics before government regulators impose a one-size-fits-all
solution," said Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C.
Labor officials, who have been pushing for the standards for nearly a
decade, said the proposal represents an effort by OSHA to address a problem
that accounts for more than one-third of all serious workplace injuries.
"These disorders constitute the biggest safety and health problem in the
workplace today," Peg Seminario, director of occupational safety and health
for the AFL-CIO, wrote in a letter to Jeffress.
But Seminario complained that the proposed OSHA rules exclude certain
workers: those in agriculture, construction and the maritime industry, all
sectors in which musculoskeletal disorders are serious problems. She also
said the standards should deal more with potential injuries before they
Restrictions against such rules included by Republicans in appropriations
bills expired in October and OSHA moved quickly to draft the workplace
standards. They were developed over many years with input from industry and
experts in ergonomics -- the science of adapting the work environment to
suit the worker.
The proposed rules would apply primarily to industrial jobs, such as
meatpacking, sewing, assembly lines and package handling. But office
workers who perform tasks that require repetitive motions such as operating
a computer keyboard could be included under the guidelines.