Ergonomics fiasco

During the past several years, Congress has successfully limited the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's ability to issue an ergonomics standard. Now it appears that feds will have to wait even longer for any formal program designed to protect them against work-related injuries.

An ergonomics standard is designed to reduce work- related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) by requiring employers to establish a preventative ergonomics program. Many of these injuries are caused or aggravated by work-related stressors such as lifting heavy objects, reaching, pulling or other physical activities in the course of work.

The road to get to this point has been long. In 1997, Congress prohibited OSHA from publishing a final ergonomics standard rule. Then in 1998, Congress passed legislation requiring a National Academy of Sciences study on the feasibility of an ergonomics standard, delaying once again the issuance of a standard. In the closing days of the Clinton administration, a standard was finally issued. Shortly thereafter, the newly elected Republican Congress invoked the Congressional Review Act and rejected the ergonomics standard regulation.

Just recently, after much foot dragging, Bush administration officials said they will issue industry-specific MSD prevention guidelines. Employers will be encouraged — but not required — to follow these guidelines. There are plans to issue MSD prevention guidelines for the federal workplace, but no one can, or will, say when.

Bobby Harnage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, in a written statement issued April 8, said voluntary guidelines months from now "won't help the thousands and thousands of federal employees who are currently suffering from repetitive stress injuries." Although there may be some exaggeration of the number of feds who are currently suffering, his point is well taken. Why wait for an indeterminate period of time to fix a problem that exists now?

MSDs have been reviewed, studied and reviewed again by countless groups. Critics contend that President Bush's actions indulge big business at the expense of America's workforce by making the program voluntary. Whether you agree with this point of view or not doesn't really matter when evaluating the implementation of an ergonomics program in the federal workplace. The Bush administration may not want to force private-sector employers to behave responsibly, but it certainly can — and should — behave responsibly toward its own employees! Feds don't want more studies. They want action now.

So far, OSHA has announced that it will develop ergonomics guidelines for nursing homes, retail grocery stores and poultry processing plants. Where are federal employees on this list? Not at the top.

OSHA should issue a strong ergonomics standard that requires agencies to eliminate hazards before more workers are injured. Such a standard could serve as a model for the private sector.

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at milt.zall@verizon.net.

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