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Ergonomics: The Next Battleground

At issue between OSHA and employers is the possible increase in the scope of compensable injuries in workers' compensation.

This article accompanies OSHA's Sharper Teeth.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010
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Will ergonomics become the battlefield that business and the Obama administration fight over in the realm of workplace safety enforcement?

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration is expected to propose a rule that will have employers differentiate work-related musculoskeletal disorders from other conditions on the agency's 300 Injury and Illness log.

OSHA officials have taken pains to assure stakeholders that the proposal is not an attempt to resurrect an enforceable ergonomics standard. But some observers think there may be more to this move than meets the eye.

Cynthia Ross, CEO of Ergonomics Technologies Corp. in Syosset, N.Y., says a new standard for ergonomics might be in the works.

"When you are building a case for regulatory change you need to be able to back up your argument. You can look at this as the start of a formal data gathering effort to provide the cost justification for such a standard," she says.

The move has peaked the concern of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce whose director of labor law policy, Marc Freedman, agrees the separate listing could be a first step toward development of a broader ergonomics agenda.

"If OSHA actually gets this in place, it will support their desire to go forward and do other regulatory actions on ergonomics, which we think is hugely problematic," he says.

He also expresses concern over how musculoskeletal disorders were defined, noting that in the previous regulations under the Clinton administration, the definition was too broad.

"What it comes down to is the causes of these types of discomforts and other levels of pain that are often outside the workplace, as opposed to inside the workplace [or] ... any other hazard that OSHA regulates," he says. "The employer may very well end up being held accountable for activities outside the workplace."

Freedman also says that any new OSHA effort in relation to ergonomics could down the road end up increasing the scope of compensable injuries in the workers' compensation realm, although that would be done, if at all, on a state-by-state basis.

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The Clinton administration in its final days released 1,600 pages of ergonomics rules that the GOP Congress managed to quash through the passage of riders on appropriation bills forbidding release of the rules. Ultimately, pro-business groups managed to kill the rules through the never before used Congressional Review Act.

Peg Seminario, director of health and safety for the AFL-CIO, says the Chamber and other business groups' fear of even indentifying such disorders indicates they are up for a fight.

Labor advocates believe that getting a better picture of true state of musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace could be the first step in finding solutions to lower their occurrences.  

See also:

OSHA's Sharper Teeth

Q&A with David Michaels

Safety-Reporting Disincentives

OSHA Protections Enhanced

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