Post offices gripped by motion injuries


WASHINGTON -- Rain, snow and gloom of night may not faze postal workers, but repetitive motion injuries are stopping them in their tracks, say postal union representatives.

Letter-sorting machines and other devices that require repetitive motions to operate have resulted in record numbers of employees contracting carpal tunnel syndrome, witnesses told a hearing conducted last week by the House subcommittee on postal personnel and modernization.

Carpal tunnel syndrome is a painful condition that results from overuse of certain tendons and muscles in the arm and hand.

Operators of "LSMs," as the letter sorters are called, are required to enter one ZIP code per second into the machines, and typically perform more than 45,000 keystrokes per shift, workers have testified at past hearings.

The panel is considering a bill designed to protect postal employees from work-related injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome.

The legislation would require the U.S. Postal Service to adopt ergonomic standards -- redesigned chairs and work stations and more frequent breaks from repetitive tasks, for example -- to prevent such injuries.

The bill also would make the Postal Service subject to Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fines -- it currently is exempt from them -- and protect employees who refuse to continue working in a job that causes them injury.

Under the legislation, workers would be given the chance to inspect new equipment before it is put into service.

Rep. Charles Hayes, D-Ill., who chairs the panel, described as "dismal" the Postal Service's response to improving worker safety and said the service has "a nationwide ergonomics problem."

Mr. Hayes cited alarming statistics. While the Postal Service makes up 27 percent of the federal work force, it accounts for 60 percent of carpal tunnel syndrome claims.

In 1989 alone, according to a statement issued at the hearing, the federal government paid $3.8 million to postal employees diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome.

A Postal Service safety official said at the hearing that the bill isn't needed. The Postal Service is already testing new, ergonomically correct work stations and improved worker training to reduce injuries, said the official, Larry Anderson. If passed, the bill will needlessly entangle the Postal Service in legal disputes with OSHA, he said.

Mr. Hayes and other subcommittee members appeared skeptical. Repetitive motion injuries among postal workers were first publicized 20 years ago and, despite several OSHA citations and a 1986 pledge to remedy the problem, the Postal Service has done little about it, they said.

The Postal Service has consistently denied that carpal tunnel syndrome even exists, according to a subcommittee aide involved with the legislation. "They either deny it or dispute it," the aide said.

Only the threat of penalties will bring real improvements, said Mr. Hayes.


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