Congress votes down ergonomic work rules

By Jennifer Jones, InfoWorld |  Business

Congress this week shot down ergonomics workplace rules imposed by former President Clinton during his final weeks in office.

The Bush administration is expected quickly to follow Congress' lead and bless a measure that would rescind Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules many consider onerous to business.

The effort to squash the ergonomics programs is perhaps a harbinger for the fate of other technology/health issues under the new administration.

For example, in a separate move this week, House Majority Leader Dick Armey sent a letter to Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services Tommy G. Thompson urging him to freeze "last minute" medical privacy rules backed by Clinton. "It is not entirely clear to me how the new rules will actually address real medical privacy harms," Armey wrote.

It is still unclear as to how the Bush administration will react to outcry over the complexity of medical privacy rules crafted under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). But the case against ergonomics regulations was more clear-cut for some.

"Despite all of the rhetoric, there was enormous cost associated with the final rules, and little scientific evidence," said Jeff Landy, a vice president at Arlington, Va.-based Information Technology Association of America (ITAA).

Weighing OSHA's ergonomics program

* Congress' case against:

Could cost businesses $100 billion annually

Imposes "full-blown" programs and/or equipment and work process changes

Reequires 90 percent pay for 90 days for injured employees

* Clinton's case for:

Protects more than 600,000 Americans

Reduces $15 billion to $20 billion annual cost of injuries

Benefits female workers who bear the brunt of repetitive-stress injuries

ITAA, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and other business associations were unanimous in their opposition to the new rules.

Proponents of the ergonomics rules argue that "destroying" the standards puts workers, particularly women, at risk for repetitive-motion injuries.

Most technology companies seem to prefer to handle ergonomics issues on a case-by-case basis and shrug off elaborate programs or government mandates.

"We always try to get good chairs for people to sit in, anti-glare screens, wrist supports, and a certain mouse for those who ask for it. But we don't take it upon ourselves to buy this for everybody," said Lisa Censullo, CTO of WordWave, a Boston-based company that generates searchable online-media text.

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