Repetitive Motion Disorders: The Unseen Disability- Pt. 2, Political and financial concerns fuel repeal of ergonomics regulations

In last month’s Part 1, Amy talked about the extent and seriousness of Repetitive Motion Disorders.  This month she talks […]

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In last month’s Part 1, Amy talked about the extent and seriousness of Repetitive Motion Disorders.  This month she talks about efforts at the state and federal level to reduce the damage caused by RMDs.

Say the word “ergonomics” and you will get completely different reactions from businesspeople, health care specialists, union representatives, and people with repetitive motion disorders (RMDs). There is no doubt that people with RMDs have a real disability. However, the recent legislative repeal of ergonomics regulations established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is ample evidence that opinions on how RMDs in the workplace should be dealt with are as opposite as they come.

President Bush signed a bill in March that, according to the March 22 edition of the Facts on File News Service, “effectively annulled a wide-ranging workplace safety initiative imposed by former President Bill Clinton in the final days of his presidency.”  The bill, JSRES6, was a joint Senate resolution to repeal OSHA regulations (S21-93, under public law 91-596) that would have required employers to provide ergonomic workspaces and equipment to workers who were injured from RMDs.

RMDs also called cumulative trauma disorders, musculoskeletal disorders (a wider classification of injuries, including those that result from repetition), repetitive stress disorders, and repetitive strain affect people differently and present with a wide variety of symptoms, depending on a multitude of factors. These factors make it extremely difficult to assign one cure or cause for RMDs. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) say that in 1999 (the year for which the bureau has the most recent statistics), 246,700 people in the United States had disorders associated with repeated traumas, or 66 percent of the total number of injuries recorded for that year. These numbers don’t account for unreported cases.

Since the repeal of the regulations, union workers, legislators who supported the regulations, and others have been asking Labor Secretary Elaine Chao when replacement rules will be put in place for employers to follow. Secretary Chao is slated to decide by September whether her department will develop new ergonomics regulations. In the meantime, thousands of American workers (if not more) are being injured every day.
According to Facts on File, when President Bush signed JSRES6, he called the regulations, “unduly burdensome and overly broad.” He said the rules would provide “uncertain benefits” and “would have cost both large and small employers billions of dollars and presented employers with overwhelming compliance challenges.”

Another argument for repealing the regulations is that employers have no way of knowing whether an RMD occurred on or off the job. This argument is bolstered by the conclusion by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that hundreds of thousands of people with RMDs, if not more, never report their injuries for fear of losing their jobs. Other opponents of the regulations say that many employers are already taking steps to protect their workers, but union representatives say not all employers can be trusted.

In the March 8, 2001 issue of the Congress Daily, reporter April Fulton quoted Rep. Anne Northrup, R-Ky, as saying, “Opponents of the ergonomics regulation who said it was too broad, would put employers out of business and override current voluntary ergonomics efforts praised the vote. If the Clinton rule were allowed to stand, it would “drive our best jobs overseas.” Northrup and Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, cosponsored the measure to overturn the regulations.

Michael Kuchta, editor of The Union Advocate, said these types of arguments “are red herring arguments the business community throws out there it’s the same type of argument they threw out with the Family Medical Leave Act.” Kuchta said he believes there is a lot of sound evidence for how the OSHA standards were developed, and that they went through the same procedure all federal regulations go through, including a decade of comment periods, revisions, and hearings.

Although OSHA’s regulations have been repealed, OSHA can still cite companies under its General Duty Clause (Section 5A1). But Kuchta is one of many who don’t believe there will be any replacement rules. “Maybe some guidelines [will be put in place], but no kind of regulations that will be enforceable by law. The marketplace (individual businesses) will dictate what a safe workplace is,” he said. “How do you evaluate what the cost of this would be?” he said, adding that the wide divide in opinion on the issue between the business and scientific communities makes it even more difficult to figure out.

Action On The State Level

Now, states are in the position to develop their own standards for ergonomics. According to Stephanie Barnes, founder of ARMS (Association for Repetitive Motion Syndromes), “Some states want to completely do away with the concept that it [the problem of RMDs] is work-related!” Barnes said it seems as if the more recognition RMDs get as a disability, the more resistance she’s seeing by the business community, in which many companies fear the potential cost of providing infrastructure improvements to protect workers. Advocates argue, however, that the enormous cost of treating employees with RMDs overshadows any potential infrastructure costs.

In Minnesota, according to James Honerman, a department spokesman for Minnesota OSHA, “We’ll continue to do the things we’ve been doing in Minnesota. If we see a trend of high rates of illness and injury, we will work within that industry to lower rates of illness and injury. The enforcement will be there.”

Honerman said Minnesota OSHA has done specific things to address ergonomics issues in the workplace. One example he cited was what his office did to counteract the high number of RMDs in the meatpacking and nursing industries in the 1980s and late 1990s. Honerman said onsite walk-throughs were conducted, followed by employee surveys and educational classes for both employees and employers. He said employees were trained on safety and health hazards and safety programs were put in place.

“Minnesota OSHA is looking at what other states have adopted for their own ergonomic standards,” he said. He said Minnesota doesn’t currently have any ergonomic standards, but Minnesota OSHA does cite for injuries and illness under the General Duty clause, and he believes the state can do better than the federal regulations that would have been in place. Honerman said ergonomic standards would have more specifically stated what employers would need to do to address workplace hazards. California and Washington are the only states with ergonomic standards right now.

According to OSHA, the benefits of the regulations, had they taken effect, would have included the prevention of 3 million MSDs (musculo skeletal disorders) over ten years, an average of 300,000 per year; the protection of 27.3 million workers at 1.9 million work sites; $22,500 in direct cost savings for each MSD prevented; and $9 billion average savings each year (currently MSDs cost $15 to $20 billion in workers’ compensation costs with total costs as high as $45 to $60 billion each year). According to OSHA statistics, the cost of fixing a workstation averages $150 per year, and employers would have had to pay $4.2 billion, including $875 million now lost by workers whose income and benefits are not fully covered by workers’ compensation.

For additional information on RMDs, the following Web sites may be of use: (Occupational Safety and Health Administration); (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations; (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics); and (National Academy of Sciences).

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