Increasing worker safety

Ergonomics: New federal standards would reach employers who haven't sought to prevent injuries.

November 29, 1999

ERGONOMIC workplace injuries cost the American economy over $50 billion a year and affect 1.8 million U.S. workers annually. Many of these injuries could be prevented by adapting the work station to avoid repetitive motion, overexertion or awkward posture of employees.

After nearly a decade of study, the U.S. Labor Department is proposing new standards to address the problem of these injuries, which result in such ailments as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis and back pain.

The flexible regulations would require employers at 1.9 million work sites to adjust work spaces and equipment to the physical makeup of individual workers. Employee retraining in preventing these accidents -- which comprise one-third of the most serious work injuries -- would be required.

Workers with a physician-diagnosed ergonomic injury would receive enhanced worker compensation benefits.

Understandably, the rules have met stiff challenge from some business groups and legislators.

These critics say employers are addressing the task voluntarily and reducing the numbers of workplace accidents. The $4.2 billion annual estimate to fix hazardous work stations is vastly understated, they say.

Finally they decry the lack of "sound science" in prescribing ergonomic remedies for injuries that are often difficult to precisely diagnose, even if they are painfully real. They ask for a delay until a study of the subject by the National Academy of Sciences comes due in 2001.

Nonsense. A 1998 study by the NAS strongly linked injuries to biomechanical stress of the working conditions. And a survey of 600 scientific studies of work-related musculoskeletal disorders by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found the same connection.

The new rules need to more specifically define what an employer must do in case of a physical mismatch between worker and work station, but that will likely emerge from a scheduled year of hearings.

The federal rules are aimed at employers who don't recognize the need to prevent these lasting, debilitating injuries to their employees. No matter how much businesses cry foul, the rules address a pressing need.

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