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Legislative Issues: Ergonomic Rules Become Final

March 1, 2001
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On November 13, 2000, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued its final regulations mandating ergonomic standards in the workplace. These rules could have a major impact on most phases of the ceramic industry in the U.S.—from factory workers to office personnel. Even OSHA itself admits that the rules will raise costs for practically all businesses.

The term “ergonomics” relates to hazards and injuries that workers face from repetitive stress and performing the same manual tasks over and over, such as repetitive bending, climbing, stretching and lifting. Ergonomic injuries can result in a multitude of physical problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome; lower back pain; muscle sprains; problems with tendons, nerves, ligaments and joints; and spinal injuries.

It is difficult to conceive of anyone in the workplace who would not be impacted. Sitting at a computer as well as operating machinery on a production line involve repetitive physical actions.

New Regulations

The new rules cover over 300 pages in the Federal Register and contain a great deal of detail pertaining to specific requirements and applications. While the rules became effective on January 16, 2001, full compliance is not mandated until October 1, 2001.

Under the new rules, employers are required to conform job tasks and work places in a manner that will eliminate possible ergonomic injuries. This could include such things as changing the height of a manufacturing line or work station so that workers do not have to constantly reach or stretch. Such possible changes raise one of the principle complaints about the rules. People, of course, vary in height and other physical attributes. If a work station is designed for one person’s physical form, it may mean that another person cannot use that same station without it being adjusted. For some tasks, such adjustments might be easy, but adjustments for others could be time consuming and expensive.

Among others, the rules apply to any worker who kneels or reaches for things for more than two hours in the workday. They also apply to those using vibrating power tools for more than 30 minutes a day or who lift more than 75 pounds just once a day or 55-pound objects in excess of 10 times a day. Also covered are employees who use a keyboard or computer mouse for more than four hours a day.

Covered workers must be given convalescence leave with pay for up to 90 days for ergonomic injuries. There is no limitation on there being successive 90-day convalescent periods. In addition, employers are required to pay for needed medical care.

If only one employee reports even a single ergonomic injury, the employer must then examine the job tasks and work area of that employee and others similarly situated to see what may need to be modified. It may mean slowing the pace of work, reassigning the employee to other tasks or rotating jobs among a group of workers. No retaliation (such as discharging) can be taken against an employee who complains about an adverse ergonomic situation.

Starting in October, employers will be required to inform workers of these new regulations, the kinds of injuries that can develop and methods of reporting them. It is not yet clear how this information has to be disseminated.

Challenging the Rules

Many business groups have opposed the issuance of these regulations. Among other things, businesses contend that they will be straddled with the costs of injuries not caused by the workplace. For instance, many back, arm and shoulder problems can be caused by an employee playing golf or tennis, or just working in the yard. In these instances, an existing injury may become aggravated at the workplace, but it would not have been caused by job related activity. In addition, it will be one more regulation for which U.S. businesses will have to pay the cost, but competing products made in foreign countries can be produced without compliance with these requirements.

OSHA claims that the costs to American industry of compliance would be about $4.5 billion, but that industry will save $9.1 billion annually due to a reduction in lost employee time from injuries and lost productivity from long-term disabilities. Business groups dispute these OSHA estimates and counter that compliance will cost from a low of $18 billion to a high of $125.6 billion a year.

A number of organizations are lobbying Congress to pass legislation to halt this new regulation. In addition, several lawsuits have already been instituted challenging the rules and requesting the courts to stop implementation. If these Congressional and legal actions fail, then the ceramic industry, like other American industries, will have to conform to this new regulation.

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