Posted online at ChicagoBusiness.com on January 16, 2001.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has enthusiastically embraced ergonomics as an effective tool in reducing on-the-job injury, and the business community is up in arms.
OSHA's tough new ergonomics standard, which takes effect Tuesday, mandates that by Oct. 14, most industrial employers must furnish their employees with the information they need to recognize-and report-work-related musculoskeletal disorders, including carpal tunnel syndrome and low-back pain.
Once such conditions are reported, employers will be required to provide medical care and paid leave for affected employees and to take steps to rid the workplace of hazards that might cause musculoskeletal disorders.
The controversial standard targets companies that have manufacturing or "manual handling" jobs, those whose workers perform "forceful lifting/lowering, pushing/pulling or carrying." Employees are protected against injuries caused by workplace exposure to "risk factors." And risk factors might be triggered when an employee does nothing more than use a keyboard or mouse for four hours in a workday.
Employers fear they'll be held accountable for musculoskeletal injuries that aren't suffered on the job.
If, for example, an employee strains herself while working out and later experiences muscle soreness while at work, she is covered by the new standard. And so is an employee who spends the weekend raking leaves, returns to work as a keyboard operator and reports wrist soreness.
Employers also raise legitimate concerns about the private-sector costs of complying with this largest-ever OSHA program. The agency projects that employers will pay about $4.5 billion a year to meet the new legal requirements.
But even the Small Business Administration disputes OSHA's math, and estimates the annual burden on business at $8.45 billion to $18 billion.
Yet, the most provocative objections to the standard relate to the science behind it.
Everyone agrees that employers should help make the workplace comfortable and productive. But many aren't convinced that ergonomics really reduces injury. Even the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, representing more than 7,000 occupational and environmental medicine physicians, withdrew its support for the standard, citing that it "lacks a sound medical foundation."
George W. Bush is on record as seeking a delay in implementing the standard until the National Academy of Sciences completes a comprehensive study of ergonomics and repetitive motion injuries.
But the new president's hands appear to be tied. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a regulation cannot be rescinded just because a new administration disagrees with its predecessor. The agency must follow the same slow and cumbersome procedure to eliminate a rule as to create one.
Nor is it likely that Congress will move to kill the standard under the Congressional Review Act. Congress has never used the authority it has to overturn a final rule, and the political climate does not predispose it to consider the standard.
So, between now and Oct. 14, just about every employer in general industry will need to begin complying with the ergonomic standard, however flawed it may be.
Marc J. Lane ([email protected]) is a Chicago lawyer and financial planner and an adjunct professor of law at Northwestern University School of Law.
Copyright © 2001 by Crain Communications Inc.