March 23, 1997
CAREERS / By SABRA
Ergonomics: n. The study of relations between humans, other living organisms, and machinery.
Last December, a federal jury in New York handed down the first verdict holding a computer equipment manufacturer liable for repetitive stress injuries. The Digital Equipment Corp. was ordered to pay $6 million in damages to three women for failing to adequately warn workers that their risk of injury increased when they used DEC keyboards.
Similar lawsuits charging that repetitive tasks involving office equipment caused nerve and muscle damage to workers (most often to hands, wrists and arms) have been settled before going to trial. So until the Digital case, no court had set such a precedent. Now the landmark decision focuses new attention on the contentious debate over whether state or federal governments should issue uniform workplace standards for RSI.
Objections to uniform standards may diminish because a December verdict could expose more employers and equipment manufacturers to lawsuits.
Employers have rebelled at that idea because it would impose costly new requirements on how offices and other workplaces are furnished and organized. Equipment manufacturers have resisted standards for the same reason that was central to Digital's defense, and that the company repeated after hearing the verdict: "There is no scientific evidence that keyboards cause musculoskeletal disorders."
But now objections to uniform standards may diminish because the verdict could expose more employers and equipment manufacturers to lawsuits. That could help resolve a battle that has been going on for years at the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, which has faced hostility from employers and business owners over its attempts to put together an ergonomic standard. A ban on development of federal ergonomics regulations was lifted only when Congress approved OSHA's financing legislation for 1997.
It may have been inevitable. RSI's legacy is increasingly difficult to ignore. OSHA says that reported RSI cases have increased 1,000 percent in the last decade. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says 700,000 new cases are reported every year, with workers compensation claims rising in tandem to nearly 3 million each year. Other grim statistics show that 18 workdays per worker are lost annually because of RSI, and the worker's compensation claims cost businesses $20 billion.
So new ergonomics rules could affect millions of workers. The Labor Department says repetitive stress injuries (also called repetitive motion injuries or cumulative trauma disorders) threaten cashiers, truck drivers, meatpackers, and garment and assembly line workers. People who install the same widget with one or two echoing gestures throughout an eight-hour shift, or reach repeatedly to inspect products moving down a conveyor-belt have long been at risk for these injuries. It isn't just the motion that causes the problem, however -- awkward posture, fixed position, forceful movements, even cold temperatures, can exacerbate stress on the body.
Awareness of RSI -- and an increase in cases -- became part of popular culture when computers became ubiquitous in the workplace. Carpal tunnel syndrome, an injury to nerves in the wrist, was one of the first maladies to plague many keyboard users. Millions of people now type on keyboards for hours at a time. When repetitive typing takes place at desks and work spaces not adjusted to individual users, fatigue, inflammation and muscle or nerve injury can follow.
Last November, the State of California announced new ergonomic standards and became the first state in the country to try to protect workers from RSI. But the state's Administrative Law Office sent the rules back to the agency that formulated them because it said they were filled with "imprecise language" that made them impossible to enforce.
One of the disputes was over the rules' reference to "the workplace." The Law Office asked whether that referred to the entire company, or just one office.
The saga of those rules illustrates how complex and fraught with disagreement the ergonomics debate has become. A 1993 state law required the California Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board to come up with ergonomics regulations. The Board rejected the first proposal submitted to it after employers objected vigorously, complaining that the rules were so complicated businesses would need an in-house physician. Only after the California Labor Federation sued the board did it go back to the drawing table to create a pared-down set of standards -- to which it added several conditions. First, the standards affect only businesses with 10 or more workers. Second, a doctor must diagnose RSI among at least two workers injured in the same year and who have identical jobs. Only then does an employer have to start an ergonomics program, evaluate the work site, and train workers to avoid RSI.
But those California employers immediately argued that the pared-down standards were still too vague and would cost them billions. The Law Office agreed that the wording was unacceptable. Whatever modifications are made will come under the state's General Industry Safety Orders, and the board says it will reveal its new version at the end of April.
OSHA says it is committed to creating an ergonomics program. But the agency has not said what, precisely, that means.
The same arguments and lobbying have plagued efforts to set ergonomics standards at the federal level. OSHA says it is committed to creating an ergonomics program. But the agency has not said what, precisely, that means. It has several choices -- it can issue voluntary guidelines and begin public education, hand down a formal rule on ergonomics standards, or it can postpone any decision while it conducts further research.
So far the agency seems inclined to let employers set the pace. At a January conference on ergonomics, employers from manufacturing, construction and service industries called for voluntary ergonomic programs that workers and their bosses could create together. Less than a month later, OSHA announced it was appointing an Ergonomics Coordinator to lead a four-pronged strategy of educational activities, research, enforcement and rule-making. In that order.
But the battle may be just heating up again. After the December jury verdict, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce vowed to fight any attempt to set federal regulations. "We oppose these standards for one very, very good reason," the Chamber's manager of labor law policy said. "There is a clear lack of scientific backing for these standards."
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