New OSHA workplace rules draw a blast form business
WASHINGTON – The 27 million Americans who labor on assembly lines, at computer work stations or in jobs involving heavy lifting could benefit from a government proposal aimed at lessening repetitive-motion injuries, supporters say. Business threatened to fight the rules in court.
”Government action to prevent the crippling of working men and women is long overdue,” said John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation.
Businesses face an estimated $4.2 billion in annual costs to fix job sites and pay workers recovering from injuries under the initiative announced Monday by the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
”If OSHA persists in pushing forward this ill-considered regulation, then we will meet them in court,” said Randel Johnson, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s vice president for labor policy.
The new workplace ergonomics regulations, long promised by the Clinton administration, had been delayed for years as the Republican-controlled Congress, under pressure from business groups, repeatedly passed legislation requiring more scientific studies.
The House voted to put another hold on the rules this fall, but the Senate adjourned for the year Friday without acting. After lawmakers left town this weekend, the administration rushed to roll out its proposal.
”We are compelled to act. Employees are getting hurt. Workers are being sent home. People are suffering,” said Charles N. Jeffress, assistant labor secretary for occupational safety and health.
Republicans on the House Education and Workforce Committee, including chairman Bill Goodling, R-Pa., said Monday in a written statement that OSHA should delay action until a National Academy of Sciences study is completed in 2001.
”An ergonomics regulation would be a substantial mandated cost on American companies and the economy,” said the GOP statement.
The proposed rules, scheduled to be published in Tuesday’s Federal Register, cannot become final before next year in any case, after a comment period that will include hearings in Washington and other cities starting in February.
Existing workplace safety regulations are aimed mainly at preventing mishaps, such as falls. The new rules also would require employers to minimize everyday physical – or ergonomic – stresses of certain jobs.
Each year, 1.8 million workers have musculoskeletal injuries related to ergonomic factors, and 600,000 people miss some work because of them, according to the OSHA.
The injuries to muscles, nerves, ligaments and tendons include such problems as carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain and tendinitis.
By spending money up front, employers could net an estimated $5 billion a year on saved workers’ compensation and medical bills and from increased productivity, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman said.
”The principles of prevention are simple and easy to put into practice,” Herman said.
Beth Piknick, a former intensive care nurse from Massachusetts, said the regulations might have prevented the serious back injury she suffered from lifting patients.
”I, like most nurses, assumed that lifting was just part of the job. At the time of my injury I didn’t know that there were lifting devices commercially available and that my hospital simply chose not to have them,” said Piknick.
Businesses argue that it is difficult to prove scientifically, however, whether some injuries result from work, activities at home or physical predispositions.
”This rule would cost businesses billions of dollars, yet the benefits – if any – are uncertain,” Johnson said.
The new rules would cover a broad range of workers from nurses to baggage handlers at airports and people who work at computers or on assembly lines.
About 60 percent of ergonomic injuries currently are in manufacturing and jobs that require heavy lifting, but repetitive stress injuries from office work are on the rise.
”It’s a big preventative issue for computer (workers),” Herman said.
Under the proposed rules, a worker who has an ergonomic injury diagnosed by a doctor would be entitled to have his or her work environment changed to relieve the cause, by altering the height of an assembly line or computer keyboard, for example.
A worker who must be assigned to lighter duty during recovery from ergonomic injury would be guaranteed normal pay and benefits. A worker who must leave the job altogether would be guaranteed 90 percent pay and full benefits during recovery.
At workplaces with numerous incidents of ergonomic injury, employers would have to provide workers medical help and safety retraining in addition to repairing physical problems.
In addition, the rules would require manufacturers and companies with workers who do manual heavy lifting to provide preventive training.
Construction, agriculture and maritime workers would not be covered by the new rules.