"Buckle up! It's our law, and OSHA's too."
That's the new message for employers, who will be made responsible for safe driving by their employees under new federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules that will come out in November.
Addressing the single largest cause of workplace deaths, the OSHA regulations will require employers to have auto safety training programs, to require employees to wear seat belts while driving on the job and to mandate helmets for employees riding motorcycles at work. The standard will affect 35 million workers, the agency says, making it one of OSHA's most far-reaching regulations. It applies to on-road and off-road vehicles. OSHA expects the rule to reduce by 25 percent the estimated 2,100 deaths of workers each year in motor vehicle accidents. Few of those fatalities, however, are included in the national total of workplace deaths, which approaches 11,000 a year.
Even if an employee is convicted of a traffic violation resulting from his own negligence, his employer would face possible OSHA fines for failing to enforce driving safety programs.
OSHA is also preparing to establish a national ergonomics standard to reduce repetitive motion injuries, such as a common wrist problem called carpal tunnel syndrome, and rules to protect health-care workers from deadly blood-borne infections such as AIDS and hepatitis, said Larry Liberatore, an agency official. New regulations for petrochemical plants, where explosions have caused multiple fatalities in recent years, also are expected shortly, he said.
Mr. Liberatore and Craig Lowry, of Maryland's job safety agency, spoke yesterday at a conference in Baltimore sponsored by the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.
One major regulatory change they discussed took place earlier this year: OSHA fines increased sevenfold, to a maximum $70,000. Maryland's fines will increase to those levels Jan. 1.
Repetitive motion injuries, which are the nation's leading cause of occupational injury or illness, have been targeted for priority attention by OSHA. Mr. Liberatore said that the national ergonomics standard should be proposed by December, although it could take several years before becoming a final regulation.
Using the "general duty" clause that requires healthy workplaces, OSHA has issued hefty fines because of repetitive motion injuries in the meatpacking, poultry, auto assembly and luggage-making industries.
In Maryland, the state job safety agency, which enforces OSHA rules, has begun to survey possible ergonomic problems in poultry plants and in offices, Mr. Lowry said. Inspectors are filming worker motions on the job and referring these films to a medical specialist for review, Mr. Lowry said. Only a couple of citations for ergonomic violations have been issued by the agency, but more cases are pending, he said.
OSHA will issue rules on protecting health-care workers by Dec. 1, under congressional mandate, Mr. Liberatore said. The rules would require employers of about 5 million health-care workers to supply protective equipment such as masks, eye wear and gloves, provide examinations and vaccines against hep- atitis B, and ensure safe handling and disposal of fluids and contaminated objects.