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The eagerly awaited ergonomics study from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) does not endorse new federal ergonomics nearly as much as the Clinton administration had hoped, adding fuel to the debate over whether the rule is necessary and workable. Some opponents had called for the rule to be delayed until the NAS report was ready, and now they say it is obvious why the Clinton administration pushed the rule into effect before the study results could be released.
The new report confirms that particular jobs can be tied to workplace injuries and estimated that these cases lead to 70 million doctor visits annually and cost the nation billions of dollars in lost wages and decreased productivity. But the report also includes dissenting opinions and questions about how much some job-related injuries can be traced to working conditions.
That is enough to give opponents of the rule reason to continue the fight. The rules in dispute were issued in November by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. They take effect in October 2001 and are intended to prevent injuries.
According to the study, scientific evidence shows that disorders of the lower back and upper extremities can be attributed to working at particular jobs, including those involving heavy lifting, repetitive and forceful motions, and stressful environments. Overall, the new study found that back pain made up the overwhelming share of workplace problems, along with muscle and bone disorders and wrist injuries, including carpal tunnel syndrome. It estimated that those maladies cost the country $45 billion to $54 billion annually in compensation, lost wages, and lowered productivity.
Most back problems were related to jobs that involved heavy lifting, twisting and turning, and whole-body vibration. But the study says back pain also occurred in jobs where workers faced a rapid work pace, monotonous work, low job satisfaction, little decision-making power, and high levels of stress. Repetitive motion, force, and vibration were the primary risk factors in shoulder, arm and wrist injuries. For muscle and bone disorders, the men at greatest risk were carpenters, construction laborers, and operators of industrial machinery. For women, those most at risk were nurses and those in nursing-support jobs, domestic and commercial cleaning workers, and janitorial workers. Programs can be developed to reduce these injuries, the report says, but they will be effective only if they are tailored to specific workplaces.
The study was requested by the Department of Health and Human Services and issued by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, two branches of the NAS. The academy is a private organization chartered by Congress to advise the government.
Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond (R-MO) says the long-awaited study shows that more work is needed to confirm that specific procedures and safeguards in the workplace will prevent musculoskeletal disorders. The results raise new questions about OSHA’s decision to hurriedly finalize and impose its ergonomics rule, the most-far-reaching regulation in history, he says. "The panel’s review is proof positive that OSHA put the cart before the horse in drafting the ergonomics rule," Bond says. "It makes clear that a whole other universe of factors, specifically psychosocial stress, is at play in work-related injuries. Unfortunately, that fact was never even considered by OSHA in developing the ergonomics rule now being implemented."
Bond is troubled by a rare, dissenting view from one panelist, one of the country’s leading hand surgeons and an expert in carpel tunnel syndrome, who maintains that no scientific study has confirmed that specific procedures in the workplace will reduce or eliminate musculoskeletal injuries. "OSHA’s ergonomics rule clearly assumes that such a scientific foundation exists," Bond says. "Frankly, the weight of the panel’s review has reconfirmed fears in Congress that OSHA cobbled together a subjective, incomplete ergonomics standard, which is plainly inadequate to reduce effectively the majority of musculoskeletal disorders or to justify the most-extensive and costly workplace regulation in history."
The dissent also raises serious questions about how studies were selected for this review. After waiting a year for the panel to conclude its work, "this is a disappointing result" and raises many of the same doubts about the legitimacy of the ergonomics rule, says Bond.
Congress intended for the panel to review a broad range of medical literature that may not have been considered by OSHA in the formulation of the rule. However, Bond faulted the study for going beyond the questions raised in the congressional request, saying it leads Congress in new, unintended directions, rather than toward a better understanding of the medical data available on workplace injuries. "If OSHA had waited for this panel to complete its work, the agency would have benefited from a clearer understanding of the available science," Bond says. "This is a very complicated issue and we need sound science and thorough medical evidence to help guide us down the right path for both small business and their employees."
In October 1999, Bond offered an amendment to the Labor, Health and Human Services Appropriations bill, which would have delayed OSHA from moving forward with its proposed ergonomics standard until the NAS study was completed. That amendment would have required OSHA to halt work on publishing a proposed rule. The amendment would have allowed the agency, however, to continue collecting data and conducting research on the prevention of musculoskeletal disorders, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, muscle aches, and back pain, which in some instances have been attributed to on-the-job activities.
Released in the final week of the Clinton administration, the NAS report focused attention once again on a rule that American businesses had begrudgingly accepted as fact, no matter how much they had opposed it. With the study seeming to reinforce ideas that the rule was not based on good science, organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers encouraged the Bush administration to overturn the rule.
"If there ever was any doubt that the rule should be overturned by Congress or the courts, this study removes it by underscoring the lack of clarity about the exact causes of musculoskeletal disorders," says Jenny Chris, the association’s director of employment policy. "While we strongly believe the panel was biased in favor of the regulation, we welcome the study’s admission that there are dozens of complex and difficult-to-determine factors," she says.
The Bush administration has indicated that it will review the ergonomics rule, along with a number of other actions taken by the Clinton administration at the last minute.