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Judge how much of a pain ergonomics rules may be

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is still accepting comments on its proposed ergonomics regulations until Feb. 1, but it wants to have the sweeping program in place by the end of 2000.

In the meantime, Republicans in Congress are trying to block the rules until a report lands next year from the National Academy of Sciences, and businesses are vowing to fight the rules in court.

One possible benefit to thinking about ergonomics now: OSHA's proposal includes a grandfather clause for employers who have a program in place when the new regulations take effect, as long as it meets the basic requirements and you do the recordkeeping.

In releasing the proposal, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman called work-related problems such as back injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome "the most prevalent, most expensive and most preventable workplace injuries" in the United States. Yet fewer than a third of the general industry employers targeted by the proposal have effective ergonomics programs, the agency says.

Evidence of injury

OSHA touts its proposal as practical, flexible and focusing on jobs with severe problems. Manual handling and manufacturing production jobs would automatically be covered. You would need to address other, specific jobs if employees develop musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) related to their work.

Even when ergonomics programs would be required, they would cover only those jobs in which the core working conditions are reasonably likely to cause or contribute to MSDs. Agriculture, construction and maritime operations would be exempt.

The agency estimates that three-quarters of employers wouldn't have to do anything until there's an injury.

Plus, OSHA is offering a "Quick Fix" option: Correct a hazard within 90 days and, if it fixes the problem, you won't have to create a full-blown ergonomics program. You would have to consult with the affected employees, observe them at work and ask for their recommendations. If the fix doesn't eliminate the hazard within 120 days or there is another reported MSD in that job within 36 months related to the same physical activities and conditions, you'll need a full program.

A controversial part of the proposal would give workers who are taking time off to recover from a covered disorder 90 percent of their pay and all of their benefits for up to six months. Light duty would get them full pay and benefits. OSHA argues that the generous benefits would ensure that workers don't hesitate to report injuries.

To comment

Copies of the proposal are available online at www.osha-slc.gov/ergonomics-standard/. A free CD-ROM with the materials and printed copies can be ordered online or by calling (202) 693-1888.

The deadline for written comments is Feb. 1. You must notify OSHA by Jan. 24 if you want to comment during one of three informal hearings: Feb. 22-March 17 in Washington, D.C.; March 21-31 in Portland, Ore.; or April 11-21 in Chicago. Visit the Web site or call OSHA for specific requirements on your comments.

OSHA's estimates

Overexertion or repetitive motions injure 1.8 million U.S. workers annually; 600,000 require time off work.

A third of all workers' comp costs come from work-related musculoskeletal disorders.

The rules are estimated to affect 1.9 million sites and 27 million workers.

Projected costs include an average of $150 per year to fix a workstation, totaling $4.2 billion.

The government says the rules will save an average of 300,000 workers from injuries each year, and employers $9 billion in costs annually.

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