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Setting Ergonomics Standards

Even with proof that safety rules can benefit, the debate continues.

March 25, 2001|RONALD D. WHITE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even as President Bush officially revoked federal workplace safety rules last week, a nonprofit organization was moving ahead on a voluntary standard for ergonomics that could be used nationally.

Coordinated by the National Safety Council under the auspices of the American National Standards Institute, the recommendations have been 11 years in the making. But the question of whether any one-size-fits-all set of rules can be effective--let alone voluntary ones--is still open to debate.

"The workplace is so varied, from office work to agriculture to manufacturing," said David Rempel, a professor of medicine and bioengineering and director of the ergonomics program at UC San Francisco. "The kinds of work, the risk factors are all different. Any [ergonomics] law trying to cover those things almost has to be written in a general way."

Ergonomics, as defined by the safety council's draft proposal, is a multidisciplinary approach that studies human physical and psychological capabilities and limitations. It's used to modify working conditions or workstations to prevent injury and to improve performance.

It was recently the focus of a virulent and partisan fight in Congress between the outgoing Clinton administration and the newly installed Bush regime.

In the waning days of his administration, President Clinton forced through Congress a set of mandatory regulations to reduce repetitive stress injuries, or musculoskeletal disorders, such as carpel tunnel syndrome and tendinitis. Federal statistics show that at least 600,000 workers annually are forced from their jobs by such ailments.

It was a showdown that also pitted organized labor against big business, which had argued that enforcing the rules would be prohibitively expensive.

The rules, which briefly took effect Jan. 16, required businesses to inform employees about potential hazards. Among other things, the rules also ordered employers to remedy the problem once verified complaints of injuries had occurred.

The mandatory national standards were summarily wiped from the books earlier this month at the behest of Bush, first by the Senate and then by the House largely along party lines. Bush has since asked Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to devise a cheaper way of addressing workplace safety.

Experts in the field of ergonomics and musculoskeletal disorders say the fight has left them in a curious position.

On the one hand, they are armed with more proof than ever that ergonomics programs save money for employers and not only protect workers but also increase productivity.

The evidence comes from sources as diverse as the National Academy of Sciences, the federal General Accounting Office, individually sponsored research from academicians and from countless businesses that have worked to reduce injuries among members of their work force. On the other hand, the fight over standards won't end any time soon.

"Ergonomics is not about products," said Marvin Dainoff, director of the center for ergonomics research at Miami University of Ohio. "It's about the problem solving. If you have someone with a work-related injury, you have to address the situation. They don't tell you how, and that's where the problem is.

"The real question, given the broad variety of jobs out there, is, can you have a fair and uniform set of enforcement rules?" Dainoff said. "This is not like a medical problem" that can be caused by asbestos, for example. "You just get rid of the asbestos. In [ergonomics], we don't have that same kind of specificity. It's not just cut and dried, where you can lay out a set of solutions."

And the voluntary national guidelines that might emerge from the American National Standards Institute face a political fight too.

"Voluntary national standards didn't get employees a 40-hour workweek or the ability to take care of their families for medical problems through family and medical leave," said a spokesperson for Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. "The country needs real regulations."

Some Republicans also were against voluntary standards, but for very different reasons.

"Generally, when a group comes out with voluntary standards, it still means, 'You better do this.' The big boys who can afford to will say yes," said Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). "But then the smaller [businesses] get forced to the corner for not complying. Big business sometimes uses this to filter out the competition."

Since 1918, the institute has approved thousands of voluntary standards, ranging from the instrumentation and methods used to measure air quality to the materials and general criteria for the ultraviolet rating of sunglasses. Its mission is "to enhance both the global competitiveness of U.S. business and the U.S. quality of life by promoting and facilitating voluntary consensus standards."

The institute does have its supporters, including Rani Lueder, a consultant on workplace ergonomics and product design in Sherman Oaks.

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