Bipartisan House members led by Rep. Roy Blunt (R-MO) are poised to smother an OSHA proposal on ergonomics. The proposed rule would require companies to protect workers who have "repetitive-motion" jobs that put stress on hands, wrists, arms, shoulders and backs. Blunt's Workplace Preservation Act (H.R. 987) would force OSHA to hold off proposing an ergonomics rule until after the publication of a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report on the issue, which is expected next year.
Blunt and his bill's co-sponsors believe there's an absence of scientific evidence linking repetitive-motion job tasks to work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs). To help resolve that question, Congress appropriated $1 million in October 1998 for the NAS study on the issue.
OSHA administrator Charles Jeffress acknowledges the proposal will be revised before it's issued this fall for public comment. A key provision will have to be added that spells out the concessions for small businesses. While OSHA says there'll be no exemptions in the rule based on company size, the agency may allow small companies an extended period to come into compliance with the final rule, if one is issued.
Extra time may not be enough to placate small-business groups, however. "This standard will impose intrusive regulatory burdens that will result in massive compliance costs," says Jo-Anne Prokopowicz of the National Association of Manufacturers.
Under the proposed rule, manufacturers and companies whose operations include manual handling tasks would have to develop one plan for management leadership and employee participation, and another for hazard identification and information. These plans would have to be developed no more than 12 months after the rule becomes final.
If a WMSD is ever reported, manufacturers and material handlers would have to establish four other program elements: job hazard analysis and control, training, medical management and program evaluation. Other types of businesses would have to adopt the entire six-point program upon the occurrence of a WMSD.
Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-NC), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protection, thinks the draft of the OSHA proposal is poorly conceived. For example, he alludes to OSHA's proposed definition of manual-handling operations, which refers to motions of "considerable force" or when "the cumulative total of the loads during the weekday is heavy." He complains terms like "considerable" and "heavy" aren't defined.
In the past, Congress has written language into annual OSHA appropriations bills prohibiting the agency from proposing an ergonomics standard. Look for that repetitive political motion again this year.
Stephen Barlas is a freelance business reporter who covers the Washington beat for 15 magazines.