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Editorial: Ergonomic is economic

OSHA rules can help improve the workplace

Monday, December 06, 1999

Ergonomics, the science of adapting worker to work space, has gained enormous attention in recent years with the computer revolution and its evil twin, RSI (repetitive stress injury). But long before the cubicled, white-collar world experienced the pangs of the workplace, manual and manufacturing laborers toiled with throbbing arms and backs.

Now, after seven years in the making, OSHA has wisely proposed regulations that aim to protect these employees and others who get injuries from ill-suited working conditions: the nurse's aide and garbage collector who do heavy lifting; the meat-packer, data-input person and assembly line worker who do the same motion hundreds of times a day.

The proposed standards are sensible guidelines for improving the conditions for 27 million workers. They call for custom-made programs, set up by bosses, to make laborers aware of potential hazards on the job. If an injury does occur, the victim reports it to the manager and the two collaborate on developing an ergonomic solution -- adjusting the chair, scheduling break and stretching times, raising the air temperature, etc.

But the rules, which are vague enough to avoid micromanaging the workplace, leave room for interpretation, and thus litigation. For instance, what if the employer fields the worker's complaint but doesn't believe it?

Say that an airline baggage handler has pain in his wrist. He notifies his boss, who doesn't believe that lifting luggage caused the injury -- avid bowling did. Who's right? How can this be negotiated?

OSHA doesn't specify what to do, but there are some logical, costly options. The laborer can try to obtain a doctor's note to convince the management -- but even then, it's unclear whether the boss will be persuaded. He can file a complaint with OSHA to send out an inspector who will examine the job conditions to determine the cause. Or he could file a claim petition to try to get workers' compensation.

OSHA needs to fix this weakness by designating a specific way to resolve these disputes. Now that the standards are open for public comment, perhaps some popular insight will yield a solution. Citizens can write letters or e-mail their ideas through the OSHA home page,, until February.

Even if this flaw is repaired, business leaders, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, will still be disappointed with the rules. They argue that the standards are too costly and the benefits are uncertain. But if the government is right in its forecast, good ergonomics could mean good economics.

The new standards would cost $4.2 billion but save business $9 billion in workers' compensation and medical fees. Past scenarios shed light on these predictions. With an ergonomic program in place, a Minnesota shoe manufacturer cut workers' compensation costs by 75 percent, even after adding two plants. The Fresno Bee, a California newspaper, reduced medical and temporary disability costs by 80 percent.

The proposed standards offer the work force a vital, long-awaited foundation for ensuring safety on the job. Now, with a bit of thoughtful revision, the rules -- and the people they cover -- will become ergonomically correct.

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