Clinton administration poised to put ergonomics in workplace : Congress fails to act, allowing OSHA to issue new rules for business


WASHINGTON - The Clinton administration is about to propose new workplace rules that officials said would protect millions of workers from repetitive-stress injuries, one of the major sources of physical pain and disability in offices and factories across the country.

In general, the rules would require employers to adopt full-scale ergonomics programs to minimize workplace hazards if even a few employees have suffered such injuries. Officials at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said they planned to issue the regulations this month.

The proposal has been delayed for years as business groups argued that the standards were unnecessary and too expensive. Opponents in the House of Representatives tried this year to delay the rules for further review, and some agencies within the administration have also voiced doubts. But the White House has decided to act now, when Congress has left town.

On Aug. 3, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would prevent the Labor department from issuing any new ergonomic standards until a study was finished. But the Senate has not approved the legislation, so the Labor department is free to issue its rules. The rules will be made final after a period of public comment, but federal officials say the comments will not derail the plan.

One critic, Sen. Christopher Bond, a Missouri Republican, said the standards would be " the most far-reaching regulation ever issued by OSHA."

Federal officials said they would try to reduce the burden on small businesses. But business groups and their allies in Congress vehemently oppose the rules, saying the costs will far exceed the benefits.

In a draft of the rules, OSHA, the federal agency that regulates workplace safety, insisted that "ergonomics programs are cost-effective and feasible" because they can reduce specific types of workplace injuries known as musculoskeletal disorders.

These disorders include strains and sprains, lower-back pain, car-pal tunnel syndrome, hernias and other ailments caused by repetitive motion, overexertion, bending, climbing or crawling. They cut across blue-collar and white-collar jobs and account for more than one-third of serious occupational injuries and illnesses in the United States.

While more research is always welcome, OSHA says, hundreds of scientific studies in recent years have produced "overwhelming evidence" that these injuries are linked to workplace activities.

OSHA says that more than 600,000 Americans suffer work-related musculoskeletal disorders each year.

Under ergonomics programs, employers must systematically analyze the risks of various jobs, change work practices to minimize or eliminate hazards and provide treatment to employees for work-related medical problems.

In its initial estimate of the benefits and costs of the new rules, OSHA says employers would have to fix or redesign 4.5 million jobs in the first year, "and a diminishing number thereafter."

These changes, it says, would prevent 32,000 to 95,000 injuries each year.

OSHA, a unit of the Labor Department, said its rules would cost employers $3.5 million in the first year.

One-fourth of the cost stems from one of the most hotly debated provisions: a requirement that employers provide full pay and benefits to workers who are removed from their jobs or reassigned to less strenuous tasks because of their injuries.

Employers would have to maintain such pay and benefits for up to six months. The Clinton administration says this protection is essential to encourage workers to report their injuries.

Margaret M. Seminario, director of occupational safety and health for the AFL-CIO, agreed.

"The purpose of this rule is to catch injuries early, before they become severe and disabling," Seminario said.

"Workers won't come forward if they believe they'll lose their jobs or have their pay reduced. These injuries occur gradually over time. When they progress to the point of significant disability, they cause extensive time off the job and are among the most costly of all work-place injuries."

The Small Business Adminis-tration, an independent government agency that analyzes the impact of federal rules on small businesses, said OSHA had grossly underestimated the cost of its rules and probably overstated the benefits. The annual cost to employers could exceed $18 billion, the business agency said.

A study commissioned by the business agency said that the guarantee of pay and benefits for injured workers could significantly increase the number of claims filed for workplace injuries.

"If this potential is realized," it said, "employees will benefit from reduced injuries and illnesses, but employers will experience a net increase in workers' compensation premiums and related costs."

Michael Fluharty, a spokesman for OSHA, said, "We expect to publish the rules as a formal proposal by the end of November." The public, he said, will have several months to comment before the agency issues final rules with the force of law.

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