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Commentary: Osha's Ergo Rules: Business, Hold Your Fire


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Commentary: OSHA's Ergo-Rules: Business, Hold Your Fire

Since 1992, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration has been working on rules designed to improve the ergonomics of the workplace. The idea is to reduce the chances of injury when workers do repetitious, strenuous, or awkward tasks. That means requiring better computer keyboards, desks, manufacturing equipment, and other machines and furnishings in the work environment. By heading off such debilitating injuries as carpal-tunnel syndrome and back strain, OSHA figures, the U.S. can save billions in medical bills, workers' compensation claims, and lost productivity.

But Republican lawmakers repeatedly blocked the rules from becoming law and used the proposals as the poster child for intrusive bureaucracy. This year, however, Congress failed to muster the votes to head off the OSHA rules. And on Nov. 23, OSHA officially unveiled its long-gestated proposal. At 310 pages of rules and documentation, it's almost thick enough to put your back out of kilter all by itself.

Predictably, business groups are outraged. "This is overkill," fumes Randel Johnson, vice-president for labor and employee benefits at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Lobbyists point out that OSHA rules would require corporate ergonomics programs if even one worker is injured, for example. Also, Johnson says, because ergonomics is an uncertain science, we don't really know how to prevent or reduce the injuries. So, Johnson and other lobbyists assert, the rules would do little to help workers while costing companies billions a year.

But it's the Beltway lobbyists and GOP opponents that are out of whack on this critical issue. Out in the real world, many companies have already figured out that taking a few steps to keep workers healthy not only makes sense--it saves dollars and cents. After all, so-called repetitive-motion injuries are occurring by the hundreds of thousands in the New Economy as workers spend longer and longer hours at the keyboard. On average, a carpal-tunnel injury keeps a worker off the job 25 days--longer than the 17-day average for a bone fracture.

Possis Medical Systems in Minneapolis is just the type of small business that lobbyists claim will be hammered by the new regs. But the 216-employee company has already provided ergonomic keyboards, comfortable chairs, and antiglare screens to keep its employees healthy and productive. Buying a $50 keyboard "sure beats carpal-tunnel injury," says Robert J. Scott, Possis' vice-president for manufacturing. And, he adds, his insurance premiums have dropped.

In fact, a slew of companies, from Perdue Farms to the Fresno Bee, have slashed injury and worker-compensation costs through the judicious use of ergonomics. Even Internet startups that throw most of their resources into building the business are paying attention to this detail. At Bidhit.com in Bothell, Wash., for instance, CEO Timothy Black plans to make life as easy as possible for his customer-support people, who spend all day typing. "We want to avoid any problems before they happen," he says."IGNORANCE." The truth is that too many companies haven't figured out that they can head off more problems by embracing ergonomics than by fighting regulation. "We're competing against ignorance," says Greg Benton, manager of corporate accounts for Stanley Works, which makes ergonomic tools and workplace furnishings and equipment.

Yes, the new rules have a cost--especially for companies that are just starting to pay attention to to the problem. OSHA pegs the total cost at $4.2 billion a year, though that's probably too high: Business has often proven that it can find cheaper ways to adopt workplace regulations. But the benefits dwarf even the costs without new approaches. OSHA calculates that the savings will be at least $9 billion a year.

And that may be low. Not only will companies save on workers' compensation now, says economist J. Paul Leigh of the University of California at Davis Medical School, fewer injuries will mean fewer cases of arthritis and other costly ailments when workers retire. "If you look at the total costs to society and the economy, certainly the benefits will outweigh the costs," he says. Isn't that just the type of regulation we want?By John Carey; John Carey Covers Health and Science from Washington.


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