Ergonomics Rules

March 28, 2001

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published finalergonomics regulations on November 14, 2000, aimed at reducing musculoskeletaldisorders (MSDs) in the workplace.

The regulation requires employers to determine whether work-related injuriesmeet the specified criteria for MSD injuries. If an MSD injury occurs, employersmust implement a quick fix remedy or a full ergonomics program, depending on thelevel of risk factors on the job as determined by a specified screening tool.

As expected, the final rules contain a number of changes from the proposedregulations published in November 1999.

Among other changes, the final regulations apply to all general industryemployers (instead of focusing on manufacturing and manual handling jobs), set ashorter minimum period during which full pay and benefits must be continuedafter an injury, and provide a two-page checklist for determining whether awork-related MSD triggers required action by the employer.

All covered employers must begin distributing information to employees, andreceive and respond to reports of injuries, by no later than October 14, 2001.

Separately, the National Research Council (NRC) completed its study (January2001), "Musculoskeletal Disorders in the Workplace," and has concludedthat work-related exposures directly contribute to musculoskeletal disorderssuch as carpal tunnel syndrome, and that some scientific approaches "areeffective when properly implemented." The report does not directly supportthe approach taken by OSHA in its ergonomics rules, although it says that someelements of the requirements have been successful at alleviating musculoskeletalpain.

Some members of Congress and the business community lobbied to delaypublication of the ergonomics regulations until after the NRC completed itsstudy, but the Clinton Administration issued the regulation in November 2000.

Although labor unions generally praised the regulations, employers, employergroups and insurance companies filed over thirty lawsuits in federal courtschallenging the legality of certain provisions of the regulations. Theergonomics regulations went into effect on January 16, 2001.

However, Republicans in Congress used procedures established in theCongressional Review Act (CRA) to revoke the regulations. Under the CRA, a jointcongressional resolution of disapproval, signed by the president, wouldinvalidate the regulations. The CRA was enacted in 1996 but was neversuccessfully used by Congress. Congress passed a joint resolution of disapprovallargely along party lines.

On March 6, 2001, the Senate approved a joint resolution (S.J. Res. 6) by a56-44 vote to repeal the ergonomics regulations. The House approved the jointresolution the following day by a 223-206 vote. President Bush signed the jointresolution on March 20, 2001, which invalidates the ergonomics regulations andprohibits OSHA from issuing a substantially similar rule in the future.

DOL Secretary Chao convened three national public forums in July 2001 on theissue of ergonomics safety in the workplace and had planned to identify a finalcourse of action by September 2001. However, the DOL decision on ergonomics hasbeen delayed by the September 11 terrorist attacks and the dedication of DOLresources in response to the attacks.

Organized labor and other employee groups supported the 2000ergonomics proposal, while employers and management groups criticized the ruleas being expensive, vague, and burdensome. Coordinating the 2000 proposal withexisting laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and state workers’compensation statutes, would be challenging and complex.

Although the new OSHA guidelines are voluntary, employers are still subjectto General Duty clause of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, which saysthat employers must keep their workplaces free from recognized serious hazards,including ergonomics hazards.

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SOURCE: Hewitt Associates LLC