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Business Groups' Lawsuit Targets Ergonomics Rules

Workplaces: OSHA will issue new worker protection requirements today. Foes object to cost.

November 14, 2000|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Business groups filed suit in federal court Monday in an attempt to block new rules issued by the Clinton administration that set the first national standards for making workplaces ergonomically sensitive--rules that advocates contend would prevent hundreds of thousands of repetitive-motion injuries each year.

The legal intervention is part of a double-barreled assault on the ergonomics rules by Republicans and a broad alliance of business interests. On Capitol Hill, GOP lawmakers are still pressing through year-end budget negotiations for legislation that would strengthen the authority of the next president to junk them.

But many Democrats and labor groups have made ergonomics a line-in-the-sand issue, demanding action on the matter before President Clinton leaves office in January. They contend that the regulations, several years in the making, already have been delayed too long. Today, Clinton will answer their pleas by publishing a final version in the Federal Register.

At stake in the dispute is one of the most sweeping--businesses say damaging--initiatives ever undertaken by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Ergonomics--the study of how to adapt work conditions to the physical capacity of workers--has gained attention steadily since Elizabeth Hanford Dole raised it as secretary of Labor in the administration of President Bush.

At a minimum, the rules published today would require employers in most industries across the country to inform their employees about musculoskeletal disorders, what causes them and how to report them. Such ailments of the muscles, nerves, joints, cartilage, blood vessels or spinal discs can be caused by repetitive motions and awkward postures at work. Carpal tunnel syndrome, often linked to key-punching or typing, is one example. But workplace accidents are not covered.

The rules say that employers must fix workplace or job conditions if they receive a valid complaint of a work-caused musculoskeletal disorder. Steps range from what OSHA calls "quick fixes"--adjusting the height of a desk or chair, for example--to more comprehensive measures for employers who encounter repeated problems.

Unless overturned by legal action, the standards will take effect Jan. 16. Businesses would be forced to comply by October. In California, federal rules would complement a recently adopted state ergonomics standard. Where the two conflict, federal rules would take precedence.

OSHA estimates that the rules would cost employers $4.5 billion a year to implement but would generate $9.1 billion in savings in reduced workers compensation and medical costs. About 102 million workers at 6.1 million sites would be protected. Businesses contend that costs would be far higher.

Many industry leaders are hoping to short-circuit the rules before they take effect.

Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, issued a statement blasting OSHA for what he called a failure to give clear guidelines on workplace risks and employer obligations. "OSHA's refusal to listen to reason as [it] rushed ahead with this ill-advised and illegal proposal is an example of irresponsible government at its worst," Donohue said. His statement announced that the chamber had filed a lawsuit alleging that the rules are incomprehensible and unconstitutional. Other business groups joined the suit or filed similar actions in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Republicans on Capitol Hill, who have sought for years to block the rules, also were sharply critical. "We are very disappointed that the Clinton-Gore administration decided to issue a final ergonomics standard right in the middle of ongoing negotiations to resolve this issue to the satisfaction of both Congress and the administration," said Reps. William F. Goodling (R-Pa.) and Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.) in a statement.

As a fallback position, many business leaders are hoping that a GOP administration headed by George W. Bush would move to block or delay the rules if he is elected president. Vice President Al Gore is seen as a strong supporter of the administration's position.

Charles Jeffress, the assistant secretary of Labor who heads OSHA, said that the time has come for the rules to move forward. Benefits to workers have "been caught up in politics for too long," Jeffress said. "Year after year, there's been delay. It's time to act. We can avoid people being hurt."

Labor leaders cheered the new rules but said that they were watered down during years of opposition from employers.

"In our view, it's a significant step forward, but the rule as crafted is actually fairly conservative," said Peg Seminario, health and safety director for the AFL-CIO.

For instance, she said, the rules do not apply to workers in construction, maritime industries or agriculture. In other industries, an employer's responsibility is only triggered by a reported injury, and then only after an investigation shows that the injury resulted from poor training or a poorly designed workstation.

The AFL-CIO, an umbrella organization representing about 13 million workers, will file a legal brief in support of the OSHA standard, she said.

Production workers in food processing, warehouse workers, nurses' aides and computer users all suffer high rates of musculoskeletal injuries that would be covered by the standard, including back strain, tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome. More than 6 million such injuries have been reported in the last 10 years, and OSHA officials estimate that at least as many have gone unreported in that time.

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Times staff writer Nancy Cleeland in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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