New Workplace Safety Rules Unveiled

February 19, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is unveiling proposed standards Friday to reduce employee injuries caused by repetitive motion, awkward postures or ill-fitting equipment in the work place.

The long-awaited draft "ergonomics" standards being announced Friday are intended to help thwart stress trauma cases such as carpal tunnel syndrome and back strains that are caused by repeated motions. They could force employers to alter work stations, redesign facilities or change tools and equipment used by workers, according to a Labor Department official speaking on condition of anonymity.

OSHA spokesman Frank Kane said the draft standards were developed over many years with input from companies and experts in ergonomics.

The standards reflect "what we've noticed worked successfully in companies," he said. Kane said the draft standards will likely evolve into an actual proposal sometime this summer, when it will be open for public comment before a final rule is made.

The proposals apply primarily to industrial jobs, such as meatpacking, sewing, assembly lines and package handling. But office workers who do tasks that require repetitive motions — such as operating a computer keyboard — could be included under the guidelines.

Under the proposed rules, employers might have to offer medical care and time off for workers who suffer injuries. Businesses also would be required to set up a system for employees to report possible hazards.

Labor officials said the proposal represents an effort by OSHA to address a problem that affects some 600,000 workers each year and accounts for more than one-third of all serious workplace injuries.

"These disorders constitute the biggest safety and health problem in the work place today," Peg Seminario, director of occupational safety and health for the AFL-CIO, wrote in a letter to Charles Jeffress, assistant labor secretary in charge of OSHA.

Seminario said implementing programs to address the problem can also benefit businesses by reducing injuries and associated worker compensation clains and by boosting productivity.

But Seminario complained that the proposed OSHA rules exclude certain workers: those in agriculture, construction and the maritime industry, all sectors in which such disorders are serious problem. She also said the standards should deal more with potential injuries before they occur.

"...As drafted, in many workplaces, the rule is only triggered after workers are injured, and that action is not required to prevent these injuries," she wrote.

Business leaders decried the proposed regulations, saying they jump the gun on what science has yet to prove. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce chastised the agency for not waiting until the National Academy of Sciences finishes a congressionally funded study on whether such standards are necessary.

"It's indicative of how little science seems to matter in crafting these regulations," said chamber spokesman Frank Coleman. He said the regulations threaten to require all businesses to become experts in ergonomics and could end up costing companies millions of dollars to alter their work places.

Coleman also complained that the draft proposal is "hopelessly vague" would give OSHA inspectors a "blank check" when investigating worksites.

Copyright 1999 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.