Rise of the backrest police?

Copyright 1999 Investors Business Daily
February 23, 1999

Last Friday, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration unveiled its latest effort to coerce business into Washington's vision of utopia. But the proposed rules to prevent repetitive-motion injuries, ergonomics for short, will not relieve a host of workplace ills - but rather cause them.

If implemented, the rules would relieve thousands of their jobs and give government greater license to poke around in the private sector.

And like so many social engineers' plans - global warming comes to mind - the ergonomics rules are based on feel-good theories and few proven facts. Just as global warming is yet to be confirmed, repetitive-motion injuries haven't been conclusively linked to the workplace.

Zealous advocates can't wait for science, though. Just months after a congressional ban on the ergonomics rules expired, OSHA dropped its regulatory bombshell.

The problem: Its proposal precedes by more than a year completion of a comprehensive National Academy of Sciences study. The review was ordered to determine if national ergonomics standards are necessary. And that report isn't due for 15 to 18 months.

Meanwhile, OSHA acts as if the workplace is solely to blame for repetitive-motion injuries. Like a bureaucratic pit bull, it has blindly clamped down on one answer and failed to consider that personal work habits, off-the-job hobbies, household chores and heredity might be factors, as well.

OSHA says its rules would be limited to manufacturing and manual operations where workers use their limbs in repetitive motions. But the rules can be applied to other jobs when documented injuries are considered to have been caused by work-related repetitive motions.

That means OSHA could start redesigning computer work stations, phone rooms and other accoutrements of modern business - just to satisfy its social planning instincts.

OSHA claims that federal ergonomic standards will save businesses money. By OSHA's count, businesses lose $15 billion to $20 billion a year to repetitive-motion injuries, presumably to medical bills and lost labor.

There are two problems with that claim. First, OSHA can't possibly know how much loss is due to workplace injuries caused by bad ergonomics; no definitive cost-benefit analysis has been done.

Second, to ensure that businesses merely break even, total compliance costs cannot exceed $15 billion to $20 billion a year, assuming that figure is correct. With 2 million businesses affected by the rules, each workplace on average can spend no more than $7,500 to $10,000 on redesigns. A manufacturing facility that has to retool its line to comply with some ergonomic rule would certainly be looking at spending more than $10,000.

Such costs will cause job cuts and a slowdown in hiring. Too many employers will have to choose between that extra worker or two and OSHA's mandatory costly redesigns. Guess who loses?

If its ergonomic standards are made law, OSHA says it will enforce them through its routine workplace inspections. Maybe that will rekindle a fundamental question: How much should government be allowed to intrude upon the workings of a private business in the marketplace?

Work conditions should be left up to the market - the mutually satisfactory arrangements between employer and worker.

What the bureaucrats and lawmakers don't understand - or ignore for political reasons - is that employers have ample interest in keeping employees healthy and on the job. If they believe that making their workplace ergonomically correct will lead to greater productivity, then they'll make the investments. They won't need the backrest police to force them into it.

As for the workers, they can make their own decisions. Those who believe their jobs are giving them repetitive-motion injuries are free to move on.

Those who don't want to leave can pressure their employers to make changes. Smart companies will listen and redesign their workplaces if they believe they're making a solid investment.

OSHA's proposal will be available for public comment this fall, still months before the NAS study is complete. Business has already blasted the rules, as it should. The economic impact of lost jobs and the threat of more government intrusion far out- weighs OSHA's unsupported promises of a better workplace.

The Republican- controlled Congress should weigh in as well. To counter the likely outcry from the utopians' chorus, it should make two points: One, there's no scientific basis for these rules, and two, who is better able to look out for workers' health -bureaucrats or the workers themselves?

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