OSHA to issue new ergonomics rule in face of lawsuits

The Clinton administration has announced it will issue tougher worker-safety laws to prevent ergonomic injury despite urgings of many industry groups not to do so. The 1,688 pages of rules are scheduled to appear in the Federal Register on Tuesday.

Opponents of the rules, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, immediately announced that they would file legal challenges to the rules.

House Education and Workforce Committee Chairman Bill Goodling, R-Pa., and Workforce Protections Subcommittee Chairman Cass Ballenger, R-N.C., said in a statement on Monday that the administration's decision would hinder congressional negotiations on the issue. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's "rush to issue the standard. ... demonstrates that the administration had no intention of negotiating in good faith," they said.

The basis for the Chamber of Commerce's case is likely to be that OSHA must show substantial evidence using the best evidence available that the job risks pose a significant risk to workers and that their proposal will address those risks, said Randy Johnson, the organization's vice president of labor and employee benefits. He said the case likely would address the breadth of the rules, which could cover tens of millions of jobs involving repetitive motion, sitting too long, posture, workplace temperature, vibrations and other issues, he said.

Jennifer Krese, NAM director for employment policy, questioned the brief time between the end of the comment period and the publication of final rules. The ergonomics documents ran more than 200,000 pages, she noted. "There's nothing linear about OSHA's thought process here," said NAM attorney Baruch Fellner. "To pass [the rule] is to engage in prophecy."

Charles Jeffress, assistant labor secretary and head of the OSHA, said in an interview that the agency "carefully" considered all comments gathered over the past year since the initial announcement. He emphasized the preventive nature of the rules, which aim to curtail worker disability claims by catching harmful practices early.

The new rules contain eight tools employers can use to determine whether they are in compliance. They also include a "screen" for someone suffering from multiple stress disorder to check to see if there are things to be done to prevent the injury from reaching severe levels.

The rules provide companies that employ workers who regularly use computers with a checklist on posture, height and adjustability of workstations.

Jeffress stressed that benefits will outweigh costs. OSHA calculated that updating workstations and controlling risk factors would cost companies about $4.5 billion. But the benefits gained by reducing worker compensation and medical payments would total $9.1 billion, he said.

"What we have said is that you are employed while they are fixing your workstation," Jeffress said.

But House Workforce committee members said some estimates show the cost could easily reach $100 billion per year.

Industry sources charge that the OSHA statute prevents the agency from issuing rules on worker compensation, which they contend are the domain of the state worker-compensation boards. But Jeffress countered that "this rule does not affect any state worker laws in any way." NAM argues that the new rule will pay injured workers 90 percent of their wages rather than 66 percent paid by the state.

NAM is filing its case against the new rules on behalf of the National Coalition on Ergonomics. Krese said that at first glance, attorneys found that the rules are "worse than the proposed rule from a year ago."

Meanwhile, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney vowed on Monday to "do everything necessary" to defend the ergonomics measure against "certain political and legal attack."

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