OSHA issued its final rule on ergonomics in November. Although the agency tried to smooth out some of the rough edges from last year's proposal, business groups complain the final rule has too many splinters. So the National Coalition on Ergonomics, an alliance of associations and businesses representing employers, filed a lawsuit to stop implementation of the rule, which forces companies to revise the way employees perform physically stressful jobs involving excessive amounts of repetitive motion.
Small-business groups were particularly irked because there are no small-business exemptions in the final rule. Damon Dozier, director of government and public affairs for National Small Business United (NSBU), says his group and other small-business representatives aren't against worker protection, particularly because entre-preneurs gen-erally hire relatives and friends. Rather, he is concerned that OSHA doesn't have the scientific backing to go forward with this rule.
Despite such dissatisfaction, OSHA has made significant changes in an effort to accommodate businesses, if not specifically small businesses. For instance, OSHA attempted to placate business groups that argued the initial proposal would have forced companies to redesign jobs whenever an employee reported even the sketchiest musculo-skeletal disorder (MSD). In the final rule, OSHA devised a new two-part test. First, an employee reports an MSD or symptoms of one; then the employer determines whether it qualifies under OSHA guidelines as an "MSD incident." Once a company establishes that an incident took place, it must use designated OSHA "screens," which specify, for example, how much weight must be lifted how frequently and at what distance before that particular movement becomes hazardous. Only jobs that fail the screen must be corrected. Companies then have two options. They can implement OSHA guidelines and provide a "Quick Fix," which is an option that gives companies 90 days to make some changes without being held to the higher standard. Only certain jobs are affected by this option, and such changes as raising or lowering a chair or providing a platform for employees to use to prevent overhead reaching mitigate rather than eliminate the hazard.
If a Quick Fix is impossible, companies must use their second option: a six-step ergonomics program that includes management leadership, employee participation, MSD management, job hazard analysis and control, training, and evaluation. These are the same six steps OSHA set out in the proposed rule, but within the six, it's made some changes. For example, it changed the language to clarify that although employees should be involved in developing your ergonomics program, employee involvement isn't practical or justified in every instance.
In the weeks prior to the publication of OSHA's final rule, the House and Senate passed an amendment to a Labor, Health and Human Services appropriations bill that would prevent OSHA from moving forward. But President Clinton threatened to veto that bill because of the ergonomics provision. Regardless of what the appeals court rules, the 2001 Congress may revisit the issue.
And that's final (too): In October 2000, OSHA released a less controversial final rule on its consultation program, which allows companies with fewer than 500 employees to get a workplace audit from a state employee working under OSHA's aegis. The consultation is free as long as you agree in advance to correct any serious hazards the consultant identifies. Once you make those recommended changes, your company is exempt from OSHA inspections for one year. The final rule adds some new requirements concerning employee involvement in consultation visits.
Stephen Barlas is a freelance business reporter who covers the Washington beat for 15 magazines.