What Price Workplace Safety?
New Rules Spark Debate Over Science, Business Costs

By David Saito-Chung
Copyright 1999 Investor's Business Daily
November 30, 1999

It was, pardon the pun, a delicious irony: Chicken soup was actually making workers at Campbell Soup Co. sick. Just a few years ago, the company found that nearly half of its workers had developed carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of cutting and cleaning chicken for use in soups. Wrist troubles, shoulder pains, and other joint problems were affecting from 35% to 50% of the company’s food processing employees.

So Campbell began an ambitious ergonomic program. The company bought new equipment, developed exercise programs for employees and set up a job rotation system that ensured workers wouldn’t do the same task two days in a row.

The result? A 47% decrease in lost workdays due to illness or injury and a 13% rise in output during a particularly busy season for the company.

The success story is not uncommon. A growing number of companies in a variety of businesses - from manufacturing to direct marketing - are transforming their workplaces into ergonomically correct environments.

Department of Labor officials cited that trend last week as a key reason for announcing sweeping new rules to protect workers from repetitive stress injuries, exactly the kind of problems that ergonomics seeks to eliminate.

The rules would require employers to take measures to reduce all repetitive stress injuries - including carpal tunnel syndrome and neck and back strains - through a basic ergonomic program after even a single injury is reported at the workplace.

Officials with the department and its Occupational Safety and Health Administration arm say anecdotal evidence from companies nationwide that have gotten rid of repetitive stress injuries with ergonomic programs suggests that such rules are justifiable.

That’s not how many business lobby groups see it.

They say there are too many unanswered scientific questions about musculo-skeletal disorders, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and neck and back strains, to make rules fair.

If no one is sure why an employee develops a repetitive stress injury, employers shouldn’t be held liable for the injury, goes the argument.

"There is no consensus opinion from the medical and scientific communities as to what causes or remedies repeated trauma injuries," said Ed Gilroy, co-chairman of the National Coalition on Ergonomics, a lobby organization funded by more than 300 business associations. "We don't know the answers to fundamental questions, such as how many repetitions would be too many, how heavy a lift is too heavy or what is an awkward position. We need comprehensive, unbiased research, not an ergonomics regulation."

The debate is hardly new.

OSHA has been studying ergonomic regulation since 1990, when Elizabeth Dole was secretary of labor. And the agency has sought to put in place industry-wide ergonomic rules since the early days of the Clinton administration.

All along, trade associations and other business lobby groups have stymied the effort, citing the market’s self-imposed solutions to the problems, the uncertain science of ergonomics and the causes of musculo-skeletal problems.

The trade groups now say they want OSHA to defer action until 2001, when a study on the causes of work-related repetitive stress injuries is due from the National Academy of Sciences.

The House narrowly passed a measure earlier this year that would keep OSHA from enacting new ergonomic rules until the academy study is complete. Similar legislation stalled in the Senate, but may be revived next year, especially if the debate continues at its current fever pitch.

"There is a lack of consensus in the scientific and medical communities on the causes of musculo-skeletal disorders to justify" OSHA’s rules, said Jennifer Krese, director of employment policy for the National Association of Manufacturers.

But OSHA officials say they’ve already waited too long. "We are compelled to act," said Charles Jeffress, assistant labor secretary for occupational safety and health. "Employees are getting hurt. Workers are being sent home. People are suffering."

Who, exactly, is suffering?

OSHA says 1.8 million workers have musculo-skeletal injuries each year and 600,000 people miss some work due to those injuries. Those hurt are in a vast cross-section of industries, everything from factory workers on assembly lines to software developers laboring on keyboards.

While repetitive stress affects workers in a variety of industries and the condition has often been reported as a major sources of injury in offices and factories, just 4% of all workplace injuries are actually linked to repetitive stress.

However, such injuries usually require the longest time off the job of any work-related condition. OSHA says the median number of workdays missed due to repetitive stress injuries is 17 - higher than transportation accidents, whose median days missed is 10.

That makes such injuries more costly for employers. The Institute for Office Ergonomics reports the average cost per worker compensation claim related to repetitive stress is $43,500.

One reason repetitive stress injuries take so long and cost so much to heal is that they take a long time to develop. The injuries are thought to be related to workers’ performing the same tasks repeatedly over a long time, putting a strain on particular muscles and joints that can become a permanent disability. Typists, for one, can develop conditions affecting their fingers and wrists.

The business lobby doesn’t dispute that work is somehow related to these injuries, but does question why one typist gets carpal tunnel syndrome and another doesn’t. Researchers suggest there may be a combination of factors leading to repetitive stress injuries, including improper use of equipment, general fitness, vitamin intake and even injuries off the job that are made worse by work.

The possibility of numerous non-work factors that might influence on-the-job injuries have led some to label ergonomics "ergononsense." So far, the groups lobbying against OSHA’s new rules haven’t gone that far.

They have, though, suggested that if repetitive stress injuries are related to causes other than work, then employers shouldn’t have to pay the entire costs of getting them fixed.

But under OSHA’s proposed rules, employers would shoulder those costs. The proposals say workers with ergonomic injuries diagnosed by a doctor would be entitled to have their workplaces altered to relieve the source of the injury.

Meanwhile, workers assigned to different duties because of injuries must retain their former rate of pay and workers who have to leave their jobs would be guaranteed 90% of pay and full benefits while they recover.

OSHA officials conceded last week that their guidelines would still let workers who are injured off the job, but whose injuries are aggravated by on-the-job conditions, seek relief from their employers.

OSHA officials insist the new rules will actually boost profits for business. The Labor Department says the standards would cost $4.2 billion a year for industry, but save employers $9 billion annually in medical costs and lost worktime by preventing 300,000 injuries per year.

But, like the science behind the rules, the agency’s cost estimates are in dispute, too. A study by the Small Business Administration said workers’ comp costs would actually rise if the rules go into effect. It says businesses costs would shoot up by $18 billion under the new regulations.

Kevin Burke, a vice president for Food Distributors International, a business lobby, says OSHA's cost estimate is "absolutely ludicrous."

The group’ss members say they’d spend $26 billion the first year after the rules go into effect because they would need to overhaul their warehouses to comply.

Burke says it would be better for OSHA to let the market solve the safety problem.

"The food distribution industry does not need OSHA to tell it how to run its warehouses safely," Burke said. "Our members are spending millions to prevent injuries to their employees. They understand the cost, both in terms of compensation claims and productivity, and in human terms as well."

There may be good evidence to suggest the market - whether through new technologies, product design advancements, or comprehensive ergonomic programs - is already solving some repetitive stress injuries.

In the last three years, the number of such injuries has dropped 17%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Also, carpal tunnel cases dropped 29% from 1993 to 1997 and tendonitis was down 28% in the same period, the bureau said. And OSHA says some 93% of all U.S. employees are already covered by a company ergonomic program.

"The great majority of manufacturers, without an OSHA-mandated ergonomics regulation have safety and health programs in place at their facilities that help them control and abate ergonomic-related injuries," said NAM’s Krese.

In the end, market forces may be the best argument to keep the regulators at bay. "The National Academy of Science already completed a study indicating broad scientific support for ergonomic interventions," said Marvin J. Dainoff, who heads the Center for Ergonomic Research at Miami University in Ohio. "I am aware of a number of individual studies. One of the most impressive has shown a documented return on investment of 950% over 10 years.

"Done properly," he continued, "ergonomics is more than cost-effective. It increases productivity."

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