Congress moves to roll back new ergonomic standards

By Patrick Thibodeau, Computerworld |  Government

Under pressure from business groups, Congress this week voted to roll back a new set of workplace ergonomic regulations that took effect in the waning days of the Clinton administration and that were aimed partly at reducing the repetitive-motion injuries that afflict many computer users.

President Bush is expected to sign the rollback legislation, which was quickly approved by both the Senate and the House of Representatives. The ergonomic standards were published last November by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and became effective in January (see story).

But the rules came under attack last year from a broad range of business groups that warned that the requirements could significantly increase corporate costs and force companies to make workplace changes that didn't have any real scientific basis. They also argued that companies could be held liable for injuries aggravated but not caused by working conditions.

The regulations covered a wide range of potential injuries, ranging from those resulting from heavy lifting to those caused by the use of computer keyboards. The rules were expected to affect a total of more than 6 million companies employing more than 100 million workers, according to OSHA.

Jeff Lande, a vice president of the Information Technology Association of America trade group in Arlington, Va., said technology vendors already "have really been on the ball in trying to decrease the number" of skeletal and muscular disorders in the workplace, largely because of the labor shortage that was facing high-tech companies until the U.S. economy began slowing down.

But the OSHA rules would have forced vendors to spend "a fortune to make additional changes that were not necessary for their industry," Lande claimed.

OSHA, which first proposed the new rules in late 1999 (see story), was trying to cut back on the number of workplace injuries caused by poor ergonomic practices. About 1.8 million workers per year experience musculoskeletal disorders, with 600,000 people suffering injuries that are serious enough to require time off from work.

Even with the future of the new rules looking doubtful, Alan Hedge, a professor of ergonomics at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., said paying attention to good ergonomic practices is a wise strategy for companies that want to cut their injury rates and increase workplace performance and productivity.

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