After long delays the U.S. Department of Labor finally published its national ergonomic proposal, whichwill cover more than 1.6 million work sites. It is scheduled to take effect next year after another round ofhearings, but business groups vow to continue fighting it.

The proposed ergonomic standard requires all manufacturers and companies that have employees who domanual lifting to have a program to identify ergonomic issues and to teach employees what to watch for.

The proposal also covers any employer that has an employee who reports an ergonomic injury. When thathappens, the employer would have to improve the conditions in that part of the workplace. Improvementscould include buying equipment or adjusting workstations.

The Department of Labor estimates that an average of 300,000 workers can be spared from injuries and $9billion can be saved each year under the proposed standard. But businesses estimate that the proposal will costthem $4.2 billion annually to fix job sites and pay workers recovering from injuries.

"If OSHA persists in pushing forward this ill-considered regulation, then we will meet them in court," saysRandal Johnson, U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president for labor policy. The standards "would costbusinesses billions of dollars, yet the benefits, if any, are uncertain."

As the debate continues, some companies that have implemented ergonomics programs have found ways tosave money.

"In general, I think it' s going to be a good thing. It will reduce injuries," says David Carroll, safety directorfor Woodpro Cabinetry in Cabool, MO.

Woodpro was recognized by OSHA for its ergonomics program, which brought its injury rates down andsaved $42,000 in workers' compensation costs. The company added angled tabletops and conveyor belts tolimit lifting.

"People seem to appreciate that. We have a safety committee so people understand the changes," Carrollsays. "We' ve done the cheapest things first. Nothing was an earth-shattering expense."

Although he sees the value of an ergonomics program, Carroll still has some disagreements with the newproposal. "It' s still too expensive. The regulations would have us pay 90% of wages while employeesare gone. It' s almost an incentive to stay away. Why should that be any different than other accident orinjury," which covers two-thirds of an employee' s pay while the individual is off the job?

Other companies have profited from well-designed ergonomics programs as well, according to OSHA:

  • Fieldcrest-Cannon, in Columbus, GA, cut musculoskeletal disorders from 121 in 1993 to 21 in 1996. They credit their success to worker involvement in designing systems to limit the need for workers to bend and reach.
  • Perdue Farms, based in North Carolina, started an ergonomics program in 1991 that was later expanded to all of its plants. Although the average rate of lost workdays due to injury and illness for poultry processing is about 12 per 100 full-time workers, six Perdue plants had no lost-time injuries in 1996.
  • Red Wing Shoes, in Minnesota, modified workstations and gave its employees adjustable chairs. The company added two new plants, but workers' comp costs still dropped 75% over four years.
  • Lunt Silversmiths, in Massachusetts, bought lifts so that workers would no longer need to carry dies for silver casting by hand. The change resultedin no more back injuries in the machine room.

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