- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 15, 2000

In its death throes, the outgoing Clinton administration has issued new workplace "ergonomics" requirements through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) that will cost American businesses at least $4.5 billion by OSHA's own estimation. Business groups, however, estimate the eventual cost could top $90 billion annually.

The new rules, which will affect more than 100 million American workers, are intended to mitigate the problem of repetitive stress injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome as well as back pain and tendinitis. When a worker reports such a problem, the employer must then determine whether it is related to the employee's work or work environment. If the answer is yes, the employee is entitled to medical care and time off with pay while the employer must take steps to reduce the hazard.

The theory is that by making chairs more comfortable and office environments more agreeable, these maladies will become less of a problem. OSHA claims that while the rules will indeed cost $4.5 billion or more per year, the actual savings in the form of decreased worker's compensation and medical expenses will be on the order of $9 billion per year.

The problem, as Republican lawmakers in Congress repeatedly tried to explain, is that the OSHA requirements are enormously vague and unscientific. How, for example, can a factual relationship between carpal tunnel syndrome (itself a little-understood problem whose causes remain enigmatic) and an employee's time on the company computer be ascertained? Many millions of people use computers routinely, typing for several hours or more per day, with no adverse effect. Since most employers are not in a position to give a medical opinion, the matter will have to be turned over to the employee's physician. But the doctor, even then, can at best give an educated guess as to the source of the injury or problem.

Similarly, lower back pain can arise from muscle strain resulting from bending over too much but it can also result from a large pot belly and poor posture. Who decides? Who knows? Who pays? the employer. And ultimately, other employees. The work formerly done by their out-on-leave colleague must be done nonetheless. Only now, the employer cannot hire a replacement while the injured worker is on leave for, well, who knows how long. Meanwhile, the remainder of the crew gets an increased workload without the extra pay.

Republicans in Congress were right to resist this ill-conceived, last-minute regulatory onslaught by the Clinton administration and OSHA. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers have filed petitions for review of the standards and will pursue the fight in court if need be. Workplace safety is certainly a desirable end, but the means being pursued by OSHA amount to just another expensive bureaucratic power grab.

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