OSHA Revamps Ergonomics Proposal

OSHA has drafted a revamped version of the ergonomics rule that may be tougher on businesses than the proposal that helped to stalemate budget talks between Republican congressional leaders and the White House.

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that OSHA has drafted a revamped version of the controversial ergonomics rule that business advocates say is tougher than the proposal that helped to stalemate budget talks between Republican congressional leaders and the White House.

Copies of the draft, dated Oct. 10, were sent anonymously to a trade newsletter and to Baruch Fellner, the Washington lawyer who represents United Parcel Service Inc. and other business interests opposed to the regulations.

However, OSHA said the rules have undergone further revisions since Oct. 10, leaving questions about what the final standard will really contain.

Several OSHA officials said the draft reflected current agency thinking, which could mean a plan that is tough on businesses.

The new draft, however, does make some attempts to address business's concerns.

For example, the original proposal requires employers to provide slightly reduced pay and full benefits for as much as six months to employees who can't work; the new proposal requires only 90 days.

The draft also tries to clarify the matter of pre-existing conditions; saying pre-existing conditions aggravated by work are covered by the rules only if they are aggravated "significantly."

But in rewriting the rules, OSHA made the document substantially longer and seemingly more confusing, reported The Wall Street Journal.

In some ways, the new draft also seems broader in scope than the original proposal, though that's not entirely clear, because some crucial definitions were left blank, most likely to be filled in later.

For example, the rules cover most employers in "general industry," but that term isn't yet defined.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the most significant change in the draft is a set of detailed specifications that employers must use to determine if their employees are performing hazardous tasks, an apparent attempt to address business complaints that the original proposal was too vague.

For example, the draft says that using a keyboard and/or a computer mouse "in a steady manner for more than four hours total in a workday" is hazardous.

Likewise, kneeling or squatting for more than two hours a day and using certain vibrating tools for more than 30 minutes a day, are also considered hazardous tasks.

Although the rules don't explicitly outlaw such tasks, the draft at the very least would encourage employers to do away with them and could be read as forbidding them.

The new draft would also require employers to provide all employees deemed to be at risk for repetitive stress injuries with free access to a doctor or other healthcare professional.

The previous proposal gave employers flexibility on that point, requiring health professionals only "when necessary."

The new draft expands the list of covered injuries. The previous version covered musculoskeletal disorders, meaning injuries to muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage and spinal disks. The new draft adds injuries to "blood vessels" to the list of musculoskeletal disorders.

It is uncertain whether or not any of the changes in the new draft will appear in the final draft of the standard, or if there is yet another revamped version, although OSHA officials told The Wall Street Journal that the Oct. 10 draft reflected the agency's current thinking.

Ergonomics is one reason why Congress decided to put off the recent budget fight until after the election.

At the heart of that dispute is the rider Republican lawmakers added to the Labor Department's spending bill which would prevent a final version of the ergonomics rules from being issued until October 2001.

President Clinton, who wants the rules in place before he leaves office, promised to veto the bill unless the provision was removed.

Edited by Virginia Sutcliffe

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