Monday, January 15, 2001

Mixed reviews for worker protection

By John Eckberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Federal rules to improve workplace ergonomics bring a cloud of worry for Tristate employers and the hope of relief for workers already in pain from repetitive stress injuries.

        Employers are upset that the regulations — nearly a decade in the making and pushed through during the final days of the Clinton administration — are vague, likely to be expensive, not prescriptive and are going to be expensive.

  • What: Fitting Jobs to Workers — OSHA's Ergonomics Mandate, an overview by the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce.
  • Where: Chamber downtown office, 441 Vine St., 300 Carew Tower.
  • When: Tuesday, 8-10 a.m. Continental Breakfast at 7:30 a.m.
  • How much: $35 for Chamber members; $40 for Tristate Chamber Collaborative members; $70 all others.
  David H. Peck and others from the law firm of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister will provide an overview of new federal ergonomics rules, their costs, benefits and scope. Limited space. Call 562-8456 for information.
        “Our folks are still not convinced that enough evidence is out there that the standards are even necessary,” said Tom Norris, director of public policy services for the 2,600-member Ohio Manufacturers' Association, a Columbus-based trade association.

        “Basically, this federalizes the Ohio workers compensation system. We still have a lot of members with a lot of uncertainty. They want to know: what they are supposed to do?”

        That's an easy one to answer, said Debbie Schneider, regional director of the Service Employees International Union District 925: Make workplaces pain-free.

        “The business community and their friends in Congress fought this every minute of the eight years we worked on it,” she said.

        “If it comes up again for revisions in hearings because of the Bush administration, we'll be there again to testify,” she said. “We'll be there as long as it takes.”

Broad rule changes
               At issue: sweeping rules that could affect as many as 102 million workers at an estimated 6.1 million work sites. Standards do not apply to the industries of railroads, construction, maritime and agriculture.

        Some companies, seeing the rules on the horizon, decided to be proactive.

        When Doug Pulvere, quality control manager at KDM Signs Inc. in Evendale, realized in 1999 that repetitive stress regulations would eventually hit the company, he figured the best approach was to face problems head-on.

        Worker teams were organized. Officials with Ohio's Bureau of Workers Compensation reviewed operations. They recommended that the company contract with an engineering firm to design a machine that could tightly roll banners that are created here and sold worldwide.

        The state offered a $40,000 grant to pay for the study and to design and manufacture new equipment. The company matched the grant with $10,000.

        A year later, the machinery is in place. Production has tripled and workplace repetitive motion injuries have fallen off dramatically at the banner wrapping company.

        “We have reduced injuries and improved production rates, convenience and quality,” said Don Savino, director of human resources, safety and administration at the business where 150 are employed.

Worker complaints
               Any rules are too late for retired letter carrier Bill Chitwood, a 61-year-old Hartwell resident who carried his mail bag on his right shoulder for the 28 years he worked for the U.S. Postal Service. He regrets it now - but back then, ergonomics was never a word issue.

        “It is great if they can figure out some way to deal with these problems, especially for letter carriers. I don't care who you are. Sooner or later it will break you down,” he said.

        Nancy Matthews-Mize, a 51-year-old clerk for the Postal Service, has had three surgeries since 1993 for carpal tunnel syndrome that she blames on her job. “You just can't do a job with repetitive wrist flex for eight hours a day and not be rotated off and expect to escape this syndrome,” she said. “It literally wears out your joints.”

        “I never heard the word ergonomics until I came to work for the Postal Service,” said Bonni G. Manies, a spokeswoman for the Cincinnati district. The agency's business goals are dependent upon quality programs and policies designed to promote and maintain employee health, she said.

        Equipment is tested before purchase for ergonomic impact — from mouse pads to equipment that sorts mail. When it is determined that repetitive bending motion, for instance, “is hard on a person's back modifications are made,” she said.

        Jobs with repetitive motion injury potential mean that workers are cycled on and off the work site with greater frequency, she said. “The Postal Service became aware of the hazards just like the rest of the world. We've had to make modifications and are still making modifications.”

Union endorsement
               As Tristate business organizations and companies begin to grapple with the rules, unions lament that employers have never seen a regulation they liked.

        “We have hundreds of thousands of workers injured in many industries from poor design of work sites and lack of some type of ergonomic systems behind the work environment,” said Clarence McCoy, health and safety specialist for United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local No. 1099, based in Monroe.

        “If you get cut, you know you're cut. But these injuries over time can be crippling. Once a person has some longevity on the job, they find they can no longer perform the job because of pain from repetitive motion.”

        The regulations attempt to protect workers from muscular and skeletal injuries and pain linked to repetitive motions in dozens of industries: from trucking to meat packing, typing to widget assembly.

        Initially, companies must provide information to workers about ergonomics and musculoskeletal disorders.

        If a worker follows up with a complaint, companies must complete “a job hazard analysis” to determine whether musculoskeletal hazards are present.

        In the analysis, employers or an ergonomic consultant must talk with employees on the job, observe the job to identify risks and suggest how the work station can be changed.

Gray areas
               “Complex,” is the one-word description of the rules used by Kim Bosgraaf, manager of regulatory policy for National Federation of Independent Business, a trade association of 600,000 small businesses that's based in Washington, D.C.

        “Small businesses don't understand the regulations,” she said.

        “A lot of times, employees are family members, friends and relatives. Small businesses have a vested interest in protecting their employees. They don't need a government regulation that mandates how.”

        Employers complain that many workers are liable to be injured because of what they do at home, instead of while working, Mr. Norris said. If a clerical worker claims carpal tunnel syndrome from a typewriter keyboard, who is to say that the trauma did not instead occur in the evening while the individual traded stocks and surfed the Web with bad posture in a converted kitchen chair?

        “What really caused it? Work at home or work at work?” Mr. Norris asked.

        The Employment Policy Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan economic research and educational foundation that receives funding from a variety of industry groups and focuses on workplace trends and policies, thinks the cost to American businesses will be sky-high: about $126 billion in its first year.

        That will trickle through and further chill the economy, predicted Ed Potter, president of the foundation:

        “Based on Labor Department statistics, 70 percent of any new human resources cost over a period of years is translated into reduced benefits or reduced take-home pay for the worker.

        “The company has a lot it can do to stay competitive but the last thing it can do is cut jobs, slow down wage increases and if severe, it may do both,” Mr. Potter said. “There is no such thing as a free lunch”

        Employers and employees have voluntarily made great headway to solve ergonomic problems, he said, leading to “a 22 percent decline in injuries over the last five years.”

Voluntary or forced?
               “Voluntary” and “mutual” are not the two words that union leader Schneider would choose to describe why repetitive motion injuries have declined in the American workplace.

        Most advances, she said, came because unions through collective bargaining agreements forced companies to make the changes.

        “Really, we bargain for much better standards (than new OSHA regulations) in our contracts,” said Ms. Schneider.

        Mr. Leffler insisted standards are ambiguous and set up a dual scale for injured workers.

        Under Ohio law, if a person is injured on the job, the state workers compensation system pays 66 percent of his salary. Under the new federal code, the worker is entitled to 90 percent of his salary, he said.

        “Now, if you have carpal tunnel, the injury seems to be worth more than if you lose a leg because one is federal and the other is state compensation,” he said.

        The new body of regulations is likely to be tied up in court and may never be enforced, he predicted.

Defender of rules
               LaVerne Mayfield, director of the Greater Cincinnati Occupational Health Center, 7030 Reading Road, Bond Hill, is not convinced that the rules will hobble profits and sees only good things on the horizon for workers.

        In fact, she said, far more needs to be done, particularly because the American work force is getting older.

        When older workers can't even hold a coffee mug because of the pain of strained tendons, it's pretty clear that federal regulations to date have not gone far enough, she said.

        “I think companies do want to cooperate but have a fear of change,” Ms. Mayfield said.

        “Workers should not end up crippled from their jobs. It's an investment that must be made - a good investment and a small price to pay to have more productivity in the long run.”


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