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The proposed ergonomic standard is now officially on the table, and as expected, American employers, business leaders, and safety experts have plenty to say on the issue. Most of what they’re saying does not bode well for the passage of the proposed standard.
The proposal was expected to draw fire because other efforts to enact ergonomic standards were soundly defeated in recent years. The new proposal will apply only to manufacturing and manual-handling jobs, not virtually all U.S. employees as previous proposals suggested. Office and retail workers are not covered. (For more information, see Occupational Health Management, March 1999, pp. 25-27.)
The proposal leaves much of the rule open to interpretation, providing only general requirements. These are the two basic components of the proposed standard:
1. Employers must have a system for recording ergonomic-related injuries and illnesses. Employees would have to be educated on musculoskeletal disorders and understand how to report hazards and injuries to the employer.
2. If a musculoskeletal disorder occurs, the employer must respond. Employers will be expected to investigate the hazard, develop ways to address it, and implement the solutions.
One critic of the ergonomic proposal is U.S. Sen. Michael Enzi (R-WY) who has introduced his own far-reaching changes to the federal occupational safety and health system. Enzi tells OHM that the proposed ergonomic standard takes the wrong approach in an era in which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has promised to be more "employer-friendly." The proposal is more like the "old OSHA" in which employers were coerced into complying out of fear of citations and penalties, rather than the "new OSHA" in which the administration works proactively with employers to improve worker conditions, he adds.
"We need to protect employees and encourage employers to watch and work to prevent these problems, but we have to be careful not to induce huge new and complex changes in the mix, such as changes in workers’ compensation that may not best serve the workers and employers," Enzi says. "Workers and employers and government need to communicate. The federally mandated approach has proven ineffective and inefficient time and time again."
He points out that OSHA director Charles Jeffress endorsed a more cooperative approach to ergonomic safety when he was director of the North Carolina Department of Labor. Enzi’s office provided a copy of a document signed by Jeffress May 2, 1996, in which Jeffress stated that "by making a [cooperative assessment program] available to employers without an enforcement action, employees whose employers take advantage of this program will experience improved working conditions much faster than if enforcement action had occurred and [the North Carolina Department of Labor] will be able to achieve much broader success in reducing occupational [musculoskeletal disorders] for the resources available."
Jeffress was unavailable for comment.
The proposal’s impact on small businesses is now being studied, and a formal review of the proposal probably will be completed by May 1999. Then a formal draft will be published in the fall, and public hearings will begin in early 2000. A final rule could be issued by the end of 2000.
A large proportion of American employers fear the proposed ergonomic standard will be another oppressive OSHA regulation, says Peter Eide, manager of labor law policy at the Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC. The Chamber of Commerce has been active in past efforts to defeat ergonomics proposals, and Eide is calling this year’s attempt "hopelessly vague" and "extremely burdensome." The Chamber of Commerce is urging OSHA to delay the ergonomics rule until there is scientific evidence that such a rule is needed and actually would improve worker safety. That lack of concrete data has been a stumbling block for those promoting past ergonomic proposals.
Dean Rosen, senior vice president and counsel for the Health Insurance Association of America in Washington, DC, recently issued a statement to the Department of Labor’s Pension and Welfare Benefit Administration declaring the ergonomic proposal unnecessary.
"The new regulations would impose unduly burdensome requirements that would raise substantially the costs of administering group health plans and foster a significant increase in litigation, all without benefiting consumers enrolled in these plans," he wrote.
There is some support for the ergonomic proposal, however. The American Chiropractic Association (ACA) in Arlington, VA, has issued a preliminary endorsement, though ACA leaders note they have not yet studied the proposal extensively.
For more information, contact:
• Peter Eide, Manager of Labor Law Policy, Chamber of Commerce, 1615 H St. N.W., Washington, DC 20062. Telephone: (202) 659-6000.
• Sen. Michael Enzi, United States Senate, Washington, DC 20510-5004. Telephone: (202) 224-3424. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
• OSHA’s ergonomics home page has extensive information and contact information: http:\\www.osha-sic.gov:80\sltc\ergonomics\.