National ergonomics rules proposed; business groups object | Action to prevent stress injuries could be required



20-Feb-1999 Saturday

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

it up.

"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.