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OSHA, which has proposed a federal standard to prevent repetitive-motion injuries, may get its own case of tendinitis--from having to throw its hands up to protect itself from all the brickbats being thrown its way. Nearly every business group in the country has criticized the OSHA proposal. "Requiring employers to institute such comprehensive ergonomics programs, when OSHA's own ergonomists can't even pinpoint the conditions that cause ergonomic-related injuries, is disingenuous," says Jennifer Krese, director of employment policy for the National Association of Manufacturers.
The proposed standard does contain a small concession for entrepreneurs: Those with fewer than 10 employees would be exempt from the standard's record-keeping requirements, which comprise a small part of the six-point program companies would have to adopt once a worker reported his or her job had caused a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD).
OSHA has toiled for many years to find a standard for preventing MSDs, but last August, the House passed the Workplace Preservation Act (H.R. 987) which effectively prohibits OSHA from issuing a standard until the National Academy of Sciences completes its study on ergonomics, due out in the spring of 2001. And Sen. Christopher S. "Kit" Bond (R-MO), chairman of the Senate Small Business Committee, sponsored the Senate version of the bill (S.1070), which did not come up for a vote in 1999.
After OSHA announced its proposed standard last November, Bond criticized the agency for disregarding suggestions offered by a small-business advisory panel that reviewed an earlier draft of the proposal. "It does not appear OSHA has modified its proposal in response to these concerns in the small-business community," Bond said, "and I am very concerned that many people will lose their jobs. Small businesses will be forced to close if this rule is finalized." A Bond spokesperson said the senator will push for S.1070 again this year. The bill has 49 co-sponsors, all of them Republicans. Bond can pass his bill without Democratic support, but he'll need Democrats in order to override the expected Clinton veto.
If OSHA's standard is approved, it will kick in immediately--but only for select jobs, and then just on a limited basis. Initially, only companies with manufacturing or materials-handling jobs (such as assembly-line work; the loading and unloading of machines; or the packing and packaging of products) would be affected. Employers would have to educate those employees on how to avoid MSDs.
Eventually, even businesses that don't have manufacturing or materials-handling jobs will have to institute full-scale, six-point programs--aimed at evaluating potential MSD-causing jobs in the workplace, abating hazards, training employees and managing MSDs--if an employee reports a work-related incident. Those businesses with manufacturing or materials-handling jobs would transition from the basic two-step program they would already have in place to the full, six-point program when an employee reported a work-related MSD. But companies shouldn't have to worry about jobs considered outside the realm of MSDs, such as secretarial or administrative positions, because the chances of a worker in one of these positions actually reporting an MSD are slim.
The proposed standard is by no means the nightmare business groups make it out to be--especially considering the $9 billion per year OSHA estimates businesses could save as a result of implementing it, based on reductions in such things as lost work time from injuries and lower premiums for compensation insurance. But it's a good bet those opposed will be able to persuade OSHA to refine the proposal--especially with respect to small businesses.
Stephen Barlas is a freelance business reporter who covers the Washington beat for 15 magazines.
Christopher S. Bond, (202) 224-5175, http://sbc.senate.gov
National Association of Manufacturers, (202) 637-3132, http://www.nam.org
OSHA, (202) 693-1999, http://www.osha.gov