Legal and legislative battles likely when OSHA ergonomic standard goes into effect Jan. 16.

A controversial OSHA ergonomic standard will go into effect Jan. 16, setting the stage for a likely legal and legislative battle. The National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and several other organizations have already filed lawsuits aimed at overturning the recent standard published just last November. Congress could also block the effective date by attaching a provision to a still-unfinished spending bill that funds OSHA.

While the standard exempts most of the construction industry, the rules definitely cover mechanical service and prefabrication shop workers. In addition, construction trade groups don't consider what may or may not be exempt as much of a leeway anyway.

"There is a misperception that just because the standard is said to apply to general industry, it will not be applied to construction companies," says Richard Kohls, president, American Subcontractors Association, and vice president, finance, The Fenton Rigging Co., Cincinnati, Ohio. "That's not true. Many construction employees work in modern office environments and engage in regulated behavior. OSHA can also apply the rule to machine shops, stage facilities and fabricating plants. The agency's earlier assurances that the standards would not apply to the construction industry is virtually meaningless."

Construction trade groups further contend that existing safety programs already address ergonomic matters. Vague language and confusion over the scientific validity of such injuries further cloud the matter.

"The bottom line is that if a worker reports any ache or pain in the bone, muscle, tendon, ligament - any part of the musculoskeletal system - then it triggers compliance with the standard," says Peter G. Chaney, director of safety and health, MCAA. "You could also get these aches and pains through any number of other means off the job, too."

Estimates of the cost of complying with the new standards range from OSHA's estimate of $4.5 billion to more than $90 billion annually. Certainly one of the most unpopular mandates require workers who take time off to recover from ergonomic-related industries to receive 90 percent of their pay and 100 percent of their benefits for up to 90 days.

Another big worry for the construction industry is that this initial standard will eventually specifically cover the construction industry. Chaney reports that OSHA's advisory committee for construction, safety and health has already issued ergonomic "guidelines" for the construction industry.

"The intent is for them to be regulations at the appropriate time," Chaney adds.