A Real Pain

OSHA's new ergonomic rules for employers are the toughest yet. Here's how to get ready for them

With the Occupational Safety & Health Administration phasing in a tough new set of ergonomics regulations, entrepreneurs may want to brace for some aches and pains of their own.

Approved in the final days of the Clinton Administration, the rules--the most stringent ever--go into effect this month, and all businesses, except those in the construction, maritime, or agriculture industries, have until October to comply. Several business lobbies are suing OSHA on the grounds that the regulations are unconstitutional. But you should still be prepared to meet the October deadline, says Kim Bosgraaf of the National Federation of Independent Business.

How do the new rules work? First, employers must post information about ergonomic injuries and their symptoms. The tough part kicks in once a complaint is filed. Say an employee complains of neck pains that last for more than a week. You'll need to evaluate the cause of the injury, including paying for a medical exam if necessary. If the injury was indeed caused by working conditions, you'll need to correct the hazards that led to it. If you haven't resolved the problem within 90 days, you're required to fund and implement an entire ergonomics program. That means examining the workplace for all "risk factors" (OSHA offers a screening tool on its Web site, www.osha.gov) and remedying any problems within 90 days. Meanwhile, if an injury forces an employee to scale back his job, you'll have to continue to pay full salary and benefits. If the person can no longer work at all, employers are responsible for 90% of their pay and benefits for 90 days. That's the biggest--and costliest--change from previous rules, which generally required employers to pay two-thirds of salary and benefits.

At the very least, employers should evaluate their workplace with OSHA's screening tool, says Rani K. Lueder, president of Humanics ErgoSystems Inc., an Encino (Calif.)-based consulting firm. If you find a problem, there are inexpensive fixes, ranging from propping up a monitor on a phone book or providing cheap footrests. Sure, it's a pain. But if you don't pay attention to ergonomics in your own way now, you'll have to do it OSHA's way later.

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