Can you say repetitive stress disorder? Featured

9:33am EDT July 22, 2002

If you haven't heard of repetitive stress disorder or musculoskeletal disorder, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is about to make sure you not only know them, but that you adhere to a new set of standards aimed at reducing the number of incidents at work.

OSHA's contentious new ergonomics standard, which applies to all businesses regardless of size, is about to take effect after nearly a year of political wrangling by members of Congress and small business leaders across the country. OSHA posted a final draft of the rules on its Web site in mid-November, and once it takes effect in January, business owners will have about a year to comply. Violators of the standards -- aimed at preventing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) -- will be fined.

"This standard is one of the three top issues for small business owners today," says Craig Orfield, a representative of Sen. Christopher Bond (Missouri), chairman of the Senate Committee on Small Business, who has been a sharp critic since the regulations were announced. "We have had a tremendous response because small businesses can't afford the crippling cost of the program and find the rules very confusing."

OSHA took the concerns into account, but went ahead anyway with an extensive ergonomics standard.

"What will happen is OSHA will develop a program directive, and we will enforce it," says Frank Librich, a supervisor at the Pittsburgh office of OSHA.

OSHA has the power to institute the rules and begin enforcing them without special consent. The Department of Labor will fund enforcement.

Few question the notion that preventive ergonomic measures could potentially help save companies millions of dollars in health care and workers' compensation claims. But as the focus turns to kinetics, some question the scientific basis of technologies that have not been proven to prevent MSDs

"Some people are simply more susceptible to MSDs, and this type of kinetics serves more in an adaptive technology than in a mandatory prevention measure," says Peter Eide, director of labor law policies for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce

OSHA faces several lawsuits, among them one filed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which says the regulations are unconstitutional and deny due process because the bill may be open to interpretation.

Says Thomas Donahue, U.S. Chamber president and CEO: "This rule ignores legitimate scientific debate over the causes of repetitive stress injuries by inflating both the scope of the risk and the number of jobs covered."

This isn't the last of the ergonomics regulation debate. We'll keep you posted. Fran Aiello is an intern from the University of Pittsburgh.