Without an ergonomics rule, will agencies still protect their workers?
Last week President Bush signed off on the repeal of an ambitious ergonomics rule issued toward the end of President Clinton's term. But as keyboard strokes and mouse clicks continue to reverberate throughout federal agencies, what remains is the potential to rack up injuries.
Although the rule's demise is imminent, health and safety advocates say that painful and potentially costly musculoskeletal disorders remain a major concern in agencies teeming with computer workstations. Advocates also say they will still work to compel agencies to address health concerns even without federal requirements forcing them to.
For example, unions can negotiate the inclusion of ergonomics safety language within agency bargaining agreements, said Millie Rodriguez, health and safety representative for the American Federation of Government Employees. Also, health and safety committees within individual agencies can increase pressure on management to improve ergonomics safeguards, she said.
Those steps "will have more weight than anything [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] can come up with now," Rodriguez said.
Poorly designed computer work-stations are one of the major causes of workplace ergonomics injuries. Studies have shown that repetitive keyboard motions can result in carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis and shoulder injuries. Sufferers might have trouble doing everyday tasks such as picking up groceries or buttoning collars. Rodriguez said she's known people who have had surgery only "to go back and do the exact kind of work that got them there in the first place."
Besides including more ergonomics measures in workers' contracts, agencies might look at how other agencies are addressing the issue. At the Social, security Administration, every field office sends a representative to receive ergonomics safety training, who in turn shares that knowledge with co-workers. There's one representative for every 50 workers.
After receiving the training, the representative visits each computer user and suggests changes to workers' desks that can minimize the risk of injury, such as lowering monitors, said Howard Egerman, an SSA employee who has bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome and tendinitis himself. Egerman testified in favor of OSHA's standard last year.
"To me, one injured person is one person too many," he said. "I can't tie shoes anymore. I can't change a light bulb. No one in the world deserves to feel like this."
SSA's program also involves providing workers with adaptive devices such as ergonomically safe keyboards and adjustable chairs, said Rose Feaman, an SSA claims representative. However, "one of the biggest problems is that people don't know how to use them," she said. "That's why training is so necessary."
OSHA issued its final ergonomics rule in November after years of work and after taking nearly a year to obtain public comments and expert testimony on its proposed rule. The rule would have required workplaces nationwide—including federal agencies—to implement a structured ergonomics safety program and adjust injury-inducing equipment when a worker suffered a job-related musculoskeletal injury. The rule would have applied to 102 million workers at 6.1 million work sites, according to OSHA.
Opponents in both the House and Senate balked at what they said was a complex and costly rule that superceded state workers' compensation laws. Earlier this month, Congress overturned the rule under the never-before-used Congressional Review Act of 1996, which enables Congress to reject final regulations issued by agencies under certain circumstances.
President Bush signed the measure March 20, saying the rule "would have cost both large and small employers billions of dollars" and impose "overwhelming compliance challenges." New Labor Department Secretary Elaine Chao said in a letter to a Senate committee chairman that she intends to "pursue a comprehensive approach to ergonomics, which may include new rulemaking, that addresses the concerns levied against the current standard."
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