Opponents of OSHA''s ergonomics rule say a study of workplace injuries recently released by the National Academy of Sciences'' (NAS) could give the Bush Administration the justification it needs to delay enforcement of the standard.
The NAS study, confirmed OSHA''s belief that certain types of jobs and working conditions can cause musculoskeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel and back pain.
The academy''s panel of experts, which reviewed scientific data on ergonomics, also agreed that many of these injuries can be prevented through intervention programs that consider workplace procedures and equipment.
However, the panel also concluded that the connection between the workplace and these injuries is "complex" because individual characteristics such as age, gender and body type play a role. Likewise, "psychosocial factors" such as job stress and low job satisfaction are also factors, the study says.
The panel concluded that further research and more accurate data on musculoskeletal disorders are needed.
Now, employer interest groups are saying that the agency may have ''jumped the gun'' by issuing the rule before the study was completed.
"This is just more evidence that it [the ergonomics standard] is a shot in the dark scientifically and should be addressed by both Congress and the new Bush Administration," said Ed Gilroy, chairman of the National Coalition on Ergonomics, a business umbrella group.
When Congress commissioned the NAS study, it intended for OSHA to wait for the results before issuing the regulation.
The agency''s decision not to wait could give the Bush Administration a rationale for issuing an administrative stay that would delay enforcement of the regulation.
Business groups also plan to use the report''s findings as evidence in their lawsuits challenging the regulation.
"Despite the study''s implied support of OSHA''s ergonomics regulation, it actually reinforces the business view that there is a lack of sound scientific evidence on the causes of musculoskeletal disorder by acknowledging the wide array of complicated, unquantifiable and subjective factors that contribute to these disorders," said Gilroy.
It won''t be a simple thing to stop because the standard has already appeared in the Federal Register as a final regulation but there are several ways the standard can be revoked. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., where all the ergonomics lawsuits against OSHA have been consolidated, can issue a stay. Congress could use the never-before-exercised Congressional Review Act to strip money for enforcement from OSHA''s budget next year. The Bush Administration could decide not to enforce the standard.
Meanwhile, labor unions and OSHA are standing behind the belief that the rule will protect workers from dangerous musculoskeletal disorders.
The AFL-CIO has initiated a letter-writing campaign to the Bush Administration and Congress asking them to support the ergonomics regulation and "oppose any efforts to take away this important worker protection."
OSHA has been working on the standards for a decade, said Charles Adkins, regional administrator for OSHA''s Region 7 office, which includes Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska.
"We estimate the cost of implementing the ergonomics standard to be $4.5 billion annually to employers and savings from the cost of injuries to be $9.1 billion," said Adkins.
An Employment Policy Foundation study puts the annual bill at $125.6 billion.
by Virginia Sutcliffe