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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Workplace Ergonomics: Preventing Repetitive Stress Injuries on the Job

Air Date: Week of

Steve Tripoli of member station WBUR in Boston reports on the federal government's new proposals for worker safety regulations for offices.


CURWOOD: For many people, the most important daily environment is their workplace. Every year millions of Americans suffer ailments related to their job, caused by lifting or typing or even staring at computer screens. Now the federal agency known as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, is proposing a major initiative to prevent these kinds of problems at work. Steve Tripoli of member station WBUR reports from Boston.

TRIPOLI: In the instrument sterilization room of a Boston-area hospital, a woman we'll call Mary works at washing and sterilizing surgical tools. Mary, who didn't want her real name or the hospital's name used for fear of a clash with supervisors, claims the everyday motions of work here are taking a toll.

MARY: Out of approximately seven full-time employees, currently we have three people that are injured or have been injured in the past who have to have continued therapy due to the repetitive motion of the job.

TRIPOLI: One co-worker has carpal tunnel syndrome affecting her wrists, which Mary says was caused by constantly pulling trays of instruments from the deep sinks where they're washed. Mary herself has hurt her back.

MARY: Well, I lift constantly, and this one day I just lifted one that was just a little too heavy, too high, and I pulled it out of place.

TRIPOLI: It's situations like this one where the federal government proposes to step in, with rules aimed at easing the strain of office typing, hospital lifting, assembly line stretching and bending, or any repetitive job. Nationwide, OSHA estimates that repetitive stress injuries afflict 600,000 workers a year, creating a wide range of so-called musculo-skeletal disorders. After reviewing hundreds of case studies, says OSHA assistant secretary Charles Jeffres, the agency believes new regulations can cut injuries by half in just the first year.

JEFFRES: There is incontrovertible evidence that these disorders are related to working conditions, and that there are things that can be done to solve the problems.

TRIPOLI: The rules would require businesses to act quickly when even one worker suffers a repetitive stress injury. In most cases, once a problem is spotted the employer would have to launch an ergonomics program to make jobs safer. This could include everything from remodeling work stations to simply training workers in how to lift heavy objects, or adjusting the position of lights, chairs and computer screens. Charles Jeffres says the regulations won't only prevent injuries, they'll save employers almost five billion dollars more in the first year than the cost of implementing them. That figure is based on OSHA's experience with companies that have already raised their ergonomic standards.

JEFFRES: What we found from meeting with those employers was that the earlier that they addressed a problem, the more they saved, because they got to a problem before someone got hurt so badly it required surgery. Bottom line, the ergonomics programs in place saved these employers significant amounts of money.

TRIPOLI: Many business leaders scoff at these contentions, claiming the regulations will cost employers far more than OSHA admits. And Peter Eide of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce complains that OSHA's proposals can put employers on the hook for injuries that may have occurred elsewhere.

EIDE: What they're doing is they're taking the workplace activities that may cause or exacerbate the actual pain that an employee or person is suffering. If you walk into a workplace and you injured your knee in a football game over the weekend, and if you do something that causes pain to your knee, then in the definition under the proposed regulation, then it becomes a workplace disorder.

TRIPOLI: OSHA denies that can happen, saying existing laws clearly determine whether an injury is work-related. But Peter Eide also says the ergonomic rules will hurt small business. From construction companies to bakeries to accounting firms, he says small companies will be burdened by these regulations in ways big ones won't.

EIDE: If you're talking about a major corporation, I'm sure that they have on their staffs ergonomists and labor lawyers and specialists in occupational safety and health. Now you take a small employer with, say, 25, 50 employees, there is, like, one person who runs that operation. And they probably don't even have a human resources professional. That's going to be an extremely onerous burden on small businesses because they don't have the time to (a) find the reg, (2) read the reg, understand it, and, finally, to make sure that ongoing compliance is there.

TRIPOLI: OSHA and several labor unions say those worries are blown out of proportion, but the debate is far from over. At the request of Congress, the National Academy of Sciences is conducting a major study of repetitive stress injuries and will issue a report next January. But OSHA doesn't need Congressional approval before enacting the new rules, and the agency has scheduled public hearings this month and next in Washington, Chicago, and Portland, Oregon. Business groups claim the Clinton administration is rushing the regulations as an election year plum to its allies in labor. If the administration goes forward, business leaders vow to challenge the rules in court. For Living on Earth, I'm Steve Tripoli in Boston.



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