Ergonomic hazards rule draws protest

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has released a rule that directs workplaces to create programmes to protect employees, including computer users, from ergonomic hazards.

          The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) this week released a rule that directs workplaces to create programmes to protect employees, including computer users, from ergonomic hazards.

          The controversial ruling immediately was challenged by the US Chamber of Commerce, which filed a lawsuit claiming the "mammoth ergonomics rule is incomprehensible and unconstitutional."

          The OSHA directive seeks to cut into the hundreds of thousands of repetitive stress injuries -- which result in lost work time -- reported each year. Ailments include carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, lower back pain, and sciatica.

          According to the order, employers will be required to inform their employees about such common MSDs (musculoskeletal disorders), provide medical attention and paid time off for workers with such injuries, and work to rid the workplace of hazards that can cause MSDs.

          According to OSHA, employees who miss work due to an MSD would be able to receive pay for up to 90 calendar days, until a health care professional determines that the employee cannot return to his or her former work activities, or when the worker can return to the job.

          Business groups have long opposed the order, which was proposed by the Clinton administration last November, saying ergonomics-related injuries are on the decline nationwide. OSHA acknowledges the decline but says MSDs still account for 33% of workplace injuries.

          In addition to workers who spend all day typing and using a mouse at their computer, the rule is aimed at other jobs that call for repetitive motion, such as the grocery, trucking, restaurant, and medical care industries.

          "OSHA has issued an ergonomics standard to reduce musculoskeletal disorders developed by workers whose jobs involve repetitive motions, force, awkward postures, contact stress, and vibration," the order states. "The principle behind ergonomics is that by fitting the job to the worker through adjusting a workstation, rotating between jobs, or using mechanical assists, MSDs can be reduced and ultimately eliminated."

          According to OSHA, about 1.8 million workers in the United States have ergonomics-related injuries; 600,000 miss work each year because of MSDs. The rule affects about 6 million workplaces.

          The Labor Policy Association, the Society for Human Resource Management, and the National Beer Wholesalers Association joined the US Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 300 businesses and organisations, in its lawsuit.

          "OSHA's regulatory juggernaut has violated employers' rights to due process by failing to provide a clear standard regarding which workplace circumstances or conduct would meet the obligation to control significant risk," Thomas Donohue, chamber president and CEO, says in a statement.

          "OSHA's refusal to listen to reason as they rushed ahead with this ill-advised and illegal proposal is an example of irresponsible government at its worst."

          The organisations claim US businesses will have to spend billions of dollars to comply. Although OSHA acknowledges that the order could prove costly, businesses will save money in the long run by preventing MSDs, thereby regaining lost productivity and reducing the number of long-term disability cases.

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