OSHA's proposed standards could protect workers - if they can be agreed upon.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently proposed ergonomic standards designed to minimize repetitive-stress injuries ranging from carpal tunnel syndrome to back ailments.

Under the proposed regulations, about 1.6 million employers would have to implement a basic ergonomics program - assigning someone to be responsible for the matter, educating workers on risk and establishing a way for workers to get help. Workplaces in which at least one documented work-related injury had occurred would have to implement a more extensive ergonomics program, requiring additional analysis and control of job hazards, and regular training in ergonomics.

Employers also would be required to monitor injured workers and, if necessary, continue to pay them wages and benefits while they recuperate.

OSHA says about 1.8 million employees suffer work-related repetitive-motion injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome and back problems, which cost $9 billion a year in worker's compensation and other expenses. About 600,000 of these ailments are serious enough to result in the worker missing time on the job. The agency said the new standards would protect as many as 27 million workers.

The proposals face strong opposition from business groups. "These are the most controversial regulations I've ever seen," says Pete Chaney, MCAA's director of safety and health. "It's usually several years before a final rule comes out after a proposal. In this case, it will be longer because of the opposition."

Essentially, the opposition centers on two points:

  • >Fact Or Fiction: Critics contend that any ergonomic regulations are unjustified by current scientific evidence.

    OSHA's proposal "would cost employers billions of dollars while failing to assure the prevention of even one injury," said Ed Gilroy, co-chairman of the National Coalition on Ergonomics, a group of about 300 companies that oppose the standards since there is no medical or scientific consensus on the cause and cure of musculoskeletal disorders. "We need comprehensive, unbiased research, not an ergonomics regulation."

    The ergonomic standards have been debated for years exactly on this point. To find out more, Congress approved $1 million in 1998 for a nonpartisan study by the National Academy of Sciences to establish or disprove a conclusive link between physical workplace activities and musculoskeletal disorders. The study, however, is not due to be completed until 2001.

    "We don't know if there's a problem in our industry or not," Chaney adds. "Some statistics show that only about 4 percent of all injuries are related to repetition; other figures show that half of all such claims are fraudulent."

  • How Much? Not surprisingly, the government and businesses are miles apart on how much the regulations would cost to implement.

    The Labor Department estimates that the cost to employers would be $4.2 billion. But one trade group, the Food Distributors International, said it conducted a study that estimated the proposed rules could cost its industry alone at least $5.2 billion and as much as $26 billion.

    Even government agencies can't agree on the final tab. The Small Business Administration, for example, has estimated that the regulation would cost businesses as much as $18 billion.

    Certainly, the most unpopular provision goes beyond the cost of implementing any procedures. The proposals would require workers who must take time off to recover from such injuries to receive 90 percent of their pay and 100 percent of their benefits. Worker compensation, a state-regulated matter, is much less generous, paying usually 60 percent of wages.

    "We look at this as a small problem," Chaney says. "No one is getting killed or permanently injured from ergonomic matters at work. But now the government wants us to expend a tremendous amount of resources to address the issue."