Commentary: Osha's New Regs Will Ease The Pain For Everybody

Sheree Lolos will never forget the night five years ago when her arms went numb. She had spent her eight-hour shift as usual, pouring a total of 12,000 pounds of plastic scrap onto a conveyor belt at a windshield factory in Springfield, Mass. That night her arms tingled and burned. The next day she and her supervisors shrugged off the pain as temporary, and she continued to work in coming months--until she could work no more. Doctors later told her that lifting and pouring for up to 60 hours a week, week after week, had damaged the nerves in her arms. Today, at 44, Lolos says she can't even wash her hair without pain. "I cry in the shower because I can't keep my hands over my head to wash out the soap," she says.

More than 600,000 people a year miss at least one day of work due to injuries from repetitive stretching, bending, or typing, government statistics show. Their pain has become the rallying cry of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), which on Nov. 13 issued 1,688 pages of detailed ergonomic standards--three years in the making--for everything from how much employees should type or use a mouse in a day to how many pounds they should lift (table, page 94). The new regs mark the first time OSHA has defined repetitive stress as a hazard and ordered employers to take corrective measures. The rules, which go into effect on Jan. 16, 2001, cover all 102 million workers not employed in agriculture, construction, railroads, or maritime industries.

HEAVY LIFTING. The standards have been bitterly opposed by some business groups. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and other trade organizations immediately filed suits in federal court to block the new regs, charging that OSHA had overstepped its statutory role. They also argue that OSHA has badly underestimated their cost. Some groups even question the whole premise of ergonomic regulation, saying that companies have done more than enough voluntarily to reduce repetitive stress injuries (RSI). "Regulation is for when the market fails," asserts Ronald Bird, chief economist at the Employment Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. "The market isn't failing with ergonomics. Sales of ergonomic furniture are soaring."

Critics do make some good points. OSHA's cost estimates may be too low. And compliance will be more difficult for small and midsize companies. This is especially true for businesses where the work requires lots of lifting and straining, including convenience stores, trucking, nursing homes, and supermarkets.

But in the long run, the regulations are likely to do more good than harm--for companies and workers alike. About 40% of the workforce is at companies, mostly large employers, that are already in compliance with the rules, OSHA estimates. In fact, company efforts have cut RSI cases by 15% since 1998, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These companies' experience bears out OSHA's claim that the long-term savings from fewer worker injuries offset the up-front costs employers incur to alter machinery or work practices. "I haven't seen anything in the OSHA rules that is out of whack with what we've done," says Brad Joseph, manager of ergonomics and safety at Ford Motor Co., which has spent millions to redesign computer workstations and assembly lines to deal with RSI.

Indeed, the new standards are similar to ones adopted by Japan, Britain, and Canada. "Five years from now, everyone will wonder what all the hullabaloo was about," says OSHA chief Charles N. Jeffress.

If nothing else, the standards eliminate much of the controversy about RSI that now plagues employers. For years, companies have struggled to determine whether, for example, an employee's carpal tunnel syndrome came from too much typing on the job or too much tennis at home. The new standards don't so much set limits as provide what OSHA calls "screening tools"--tests for employers to sort out such questions. So if the employee types for more than four hours without a break in a day, the employer must assume responsibility and fix the problem--regardless of how much tennis the employee plays. Employers can attempt a quick fix, within 90 days. But if that fails, they must begin a comprehensive rebuilding of the workplace to eliminate the risk.

TUNNEL VISION. By the same token, however, the company wouldn't have to cut all typing to four hours a day. Instead, it could do what many already have done: buy different keyboards, tables, or chairs, or allow workers to take more breaks. And if the typist types continuously for fewer than four hours a day, the employer bears no responsibility for any carpal tunnel, even if the worker does nothing at home that might be a suspected cause of the injury. What's more, employers can ignore the screening tools completely if no one complains of injuries.

But won't such detailed criteria force companies to shell out billions? OSHA calculates that implementation will cost an average of $250 per workstation in offices and factories. The overall tab to business will total $4.5 billion in the first year, it figures, diminishing after companies make needed one-time changes. By contrast, NAM pegs the price at $781 per employee, or $6.7 billion in the first year. The Small Business Administration offers one of the higher estimates: nearly $20 billion in year one. "In our industry, everything is made of stainless steel for sanitary reasons," says Dan McCausland, director of worker safety at the American Meat Institute, which represents meatpackers. "You can't buy much stainless steel for $250."

But even if critics are right about the cost--independent experts don't agree on who's closer to the mark--the naysayers ignore the savings companies can reap. The regs should slash RSI incidents by 75%, or 460,000 cases a year over the decade OSHA thinks it will take companies to comply, the agency estimates. If that happens, companies could save $9.1 billion annually in reduced medical and compensation claims and fewer lost work days. Even if the savings come in lower, employers will gain in the long run.

Take 3M (MMM). In the mid 1990s, the company spent $60,000 on new ramps, forklifts, and training at a sponge factory in Tonawanda, N.Y., so that an aging workforce no longer had to manually lift 130-lb. blocks of sponge. The result: Workers' comp claims fell to zero, from scores a year earlier. And productivity soared, shaving hours off the time it took to load up trucks with sponges, says 3M ergonomics manager Nancy Larson.

3M also began moving aggressively on keyboard use. It bought ergonomically correct workstations, with adjustable chairs and tables, for all office workers. Like many large companies, 3M hired experts to write its ergonomic standards, such as requiring regular breaks from typing, which managers are responsible for enforcing. "I know it sounds unreasonable, but limiting continuous typing to no more than four hours at a time is based on research and makes sense," says Larson. "We've got kids coming out of college who are already injured from overuse of computers."

Lots of other companies have done the same thing, experts say--and reaped savings. "Our workers' comp has been reduced by 60% to 70% since our ergonomic standards were introduced in 1994," says Greg Durham, safety and health manager at Dallas-based Texas Instruments Corp. (TXN)

No question, an ergonomic overhaul will be painful for those companies that haven't yet grappled with such issues. But for most, the likely outcome will be dramatically fewer employees with problems like Lolos'--and long-term cost savings to boot.

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