Looking at ergonomics

Posted: Friday, March 09, 2001

The following editorial appeared in today's Providence Journal:

Bravo to Congress for halting workplace ergonomics rules - 1,600 pages worth - rushed through by President Clinton to take effect four days before he left office, instead of letting the incoming Bush administration tackle the problem. As written, the rules, created by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, would cost billions of dollars to implement - estimates range from $4.5 billion to $100 billion - and impose an extraordinary regulatory burden on all businesses with 10 or more employees, with no clear evidence that they would solve anything.

Everyone knows that workers doing repetitive tasks sometimes develop crippling pain and weakness, such as the condition known as Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Unfortunately, the science of cause and effect is not all that clear in this sort of problem. One of the consequences of getting older, for example, is aching joints and muscles. Shoveling snow or working on the gardening may bring on backaches.

Should employers be responsible for those, pay medical bills and undertake renovations of work stations because of them?

Under this plan, they would. Employers would have to cover the cost of three doctors' visits, and the physician would be barred from reporting whether work or outside activities directly contributed to the pains. In some cases, employers would be required to pay salary and health benefits for those who claim what OSHA calls musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), a condition relatively easy to fake.

The regulations are vague about exactly what kind of motions at the workplace can be suspected of causing MSDs. Moreover, the science of ergonomics - adapting working conditions to the worker - was designed to make employees more comfortable and thus more productive; it was not designed to make ailments go away, as the rules seem to suggest it would.

This is not to say that the government should sit back and do nothing to prevent muscular stress injuries on the job. New Labor Secretary Elaine Chao has pledged that her department will undertake "a comprehensive approach to ergonomics, which may include new rule-making, that addresses the concerns levied against the current standard." She has promised to work with organized labor and business interests to come up with the best way to deal with the problem. Let us hold her to that promise.

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