February 19, 1999
The Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed new rules to prevent neck, back and wrist injuries in the workplace. Phil Ponce and guests discuss the proposal.
PHIL PONCE: Each year, almost 650,000 Americans suffer from serious injuries and illness due to over-exertion or repetitive physical stress on the job. That's according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, better known as OSHA. Today, at the Department of Labor in Washington, OSHA proposed new guidelines that would require many employers to set up so-called ergonomics programs to reduce such workplace injuries. Ergonomics is defined as "the applied science of equipment design intended to reduce operator fatigue and discomfort," or as OSHA puts it, it's "the science of fitting the job to the worker."
OSHA says a bad fit between workers and the equipment they use or what they're called upon to do causes about one-third of all workplace injuries. The new rules could impact many workplaces, potentially affecting the arrangement of work stations; a redesign of facilities; and changes in tools and equipment. The guidelines would aim at jobs where workers perform repetitive tasks. Workers on an assembly line at a poultry processing plant, for example, reach repeatedly to grab the birds. Others work at a fast pace to cut the chickens into pieces. Delivery people, as well as package handlers, lift and sort heavy packages all day. And office workers who sit at computer workstations may experience musculo-skeletal disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome.
In the case of office workers, the new rules would apply when a specific employee is shown to have documented injuries. This is not the first time OSHA has tried to come up with regulations requiring employers to follow ergonomic guidelines to protect workers from injury. But Congress has blocked them three times in recent years.
PHIL PONCE: Three views now on the proposed workplace rules. Joining me are Charles Jeffress, Assistant Secretary of Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA; Patrick Cleary, vice president for human resource policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, which represents 14,000 companies; and Eric Frumin, director of occupational safety and health at the Union of Needle Trades, Industrial and Textile Employees. Gentlemen, welcome. Mr. Jeffress, we just got an overview of some of the things that OSHA is thinking about, but specifically what is it you want to employers to do?
CHARLES JEFFRESS, OSHA Administrator: When someone is hurt, we want the employer to analyze what caused the injury, to put a fix in place and then to train employees in how to avoid injury and how to work with the job they're in. We have examples from hundreds of businesses all across the country of successful solutions, things they have done to prevent ergonomic injuries and illnesses when employers are looking for what solution will fit their hazard, we expect to have possibilities to give them things to try. But we won't mandate a specific solution for any given workplace; we're looking for employers to analyze what works for them, to put it in place and to keep it in place.
PHIL PONCE: And you talk about hundreds of examples from the around the country. Give us an example of the kind of thing that OSHA might envision.
CHARLES JEFFRESS: Well, for instance, the tape showed the poultry plant workers. Poultry plant workers, when they make cuts on chickens, have to bring the knife down, and if that knife is straight, they have to turn their wrist and it causes wrist problems. By curving that knife, you can pull your arm down straight, you don't have to turn your wrist, and you've just avoided an ergonomic injury.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Cleary that sounds like a pretty simple solution to a potential problem. How does business feel about these proposals?
PATRICK CLEARY, National Association of Manufacturers: It's important to say first and foremost that our members spend billions of dollars a year on safety already. All of our members, 14,000 members that employ 18 million people across this country, manufacturers in every state in the union, know one central theme, and that is safety is good business. They know that today. Now, what's happened this year is that congress -- last year, actually, congress appropriated almost $1 million, which is still a lot of money in our universe, to the National Academy of Sciences, which is a non-partisan group to, study this issue. And they are -- they've just begun, they're just under way, and that study probably won't be done for about another 12 or 15 months, I understand. But it sure seems to us like we ought to wait till the evidence is in on ergonomics before we move forward. The only thing we're sure of today is that the medical community is split on this, that there is a difference of opinion. There is no real consensus on these things. I mean I'll go back to the poultry plant that Charles mentioned. You know, you've got people in that plant that are working side by side with one another, some small percentage of them will have some ergonomics injuries. The large majority of them won't. Why is that? Is it a congenital defect? Are they bowling or playing softball on the weekends? We don't know. And the truth is neither does OSHA. And our view is we need to look into that a little bit more and get some more facts in before we move in on such an all-encompassing standard that is has been proposed here.
PHIL PONCE: So, what you're saying is there's been established no direct one to one sort of direct causation between what happens on that poultry line and possible problems. You're saying the jury is still out on that?
PATRICK CLEARY: The jury is still out on that. I mean, if you look at the BLS data, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is the same labor department that houses OSHA, you look at about 4% of their injuries and illnesses are ergonomics-related. And so that means 4% of what they get; 96% are not. Now, if you've got a work force of 120 million people, you've got most people that don't have these injuries, they're working side by side with a few people who do. And that to us is of interest. We need to know why some people do and most people don't. What is the causation? And that's what we need to look into. That's what the medical community's split on.
PHIL PONCE: And before I get back to Mr. Jeffress on the issue of causation, I'd like to get on the table some concerns that labor has. Mr. Frumin.
ERIC FRUMIN, UNITE, Needletrades and Textile Union: Good evening. Thank you. Well, we see some serious problems with the standard and with the proposal. First of all, unfortunately, it leaves out millions of workers who would need to be covered by it because they face serious hazards. For the people who are covered by it, it doesn't -- there are loopholes in it that allow employers to escape some of the requirements. And finally, it doesn't really give workers the chance to be involved in fixing the jobs that they need in order to really make those fixes stick because it's not always apparent what the fix is. I'd also like to point out that Mr. Cleary's account of the science is really at best naive. The National Academy of Sciences and many other agencies have looked at it in detail for many, many years. For him to say that the research now is only beginning is really, unfortunately, quite misleading. And we know plenty about this. OSHA knows plenty. Others know plenty. The medical community is not split on the subject and there's a broad consensus favoring strong action now. We have 600,000 injuries every year, disabling injuries every year related to this problem -- three out of every ten disabling injuries, not just a few people. That's a lot of injured workers. That's billions of dollars in costs to workers and employers, tens of billions of dollars. We can't wait any longer for studies.
PHIL PONCE: A quick response to that, Mr. Cleary?
PATRICK CLEARY: The truth is that the National Academy of Sciences that looked at it last year concluded one thing, which is there's work left to be done. My point is that there's a study underway; we ought to wait until that gets finished. It's clear that the data really is split. They've got their studies and we have our studies. There is no consensus in the medical community on this point.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Jeffress, I'd like you to respond to something else Mr. Frumin raised and that is the issue of who it is that is covered. What groups of employees are covered and what big groups are not covered, Mr. Jeffress?
CHARLES JEFFRESS: We know that 60 percent of the ergonomic injuries that occur in the workplace occur in manufacturing operations or where people are manly handling things, lifting a package or lifting a person in a nursing home, for instance. So our standard covers all manufacturing operations and whatever manual handling occurs. We also will cover anywhere than an injury occurs. If an employee is hurt, again, we want the employer to respond -- pretty common sense and we know that it makes sense.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Frumin, who's being left out specifically?
ERIC FRUMIN: Well, there are a lot of workers in other industries, whether it's grocery stores, restaurants, post offices, offices and stores of many different kinds and unfortunately for them, there's no training, there's no obligation for the employer to initiate anything. And unless they have the ability to find out about this on their own, they're going to be suffering until one of them is hurt badly enough that they're finally forced to take time off, and until then, the employer has to do nothing. So we're talking about one out of every ten injuries, disabling injuries in this country every year. That's a lot of workers who are affected.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Jeffress, why didn't you cast a bigger net as to the coverage?
CHARLES JEFFRESS: Well, we think by covering all workplaces where an injury occurs, we in fact have covered every workplace in general industry. Where employees are not suffering injuries, we felt like it wasn't a requirement that an employer go beyond what they're currently doing in the workplace.
PHIL PONCE: So let me understand. Say we showed people working at computer stations, and millions of Americans work at computer stations.
CHARLES JEFFRESS: Yes, right.
PHIL PONCE: This is not manufacturing, so it doesn't -
CHARLES JEFFRESS: That's right.
PHIL PONCE: It's not "general industry."
CHARLES JEFFRESS: Not covered by definition, right.
PHIL PONCE: Not covered by definition.
CHARLES JEFFRESS: Right.
PHIL PONCE: So under what circumstances would a person who works at a computer workstation potentially be covered by these rules?
CHARLES JEFFRESS: Right. If in this business, any one person is working at a workstation, suffers pain and loses time from work or has to have medical attention because of that pain, that employer is then going to be obligated to look at all similar workstations in that business and identify what the problems are, put solutions in place to fix them.
PHIL PONCE: How do you see that as a trigger, Mr. Cleary?
PATRICK CLEARY: Well, actually, one of the changes in the proposals made today actually lowers the trigger, so that even one complaint of an ergonomic injury will require an employer to adopt a whole program.
PHIL PONCE: You think that's unfair?
PATRICK CLEARY: We think it's probably a little overreaching on this thing. I mean, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports -- again, we go back to the facts -- they report that these injuries have been on the decline for three years now. And we think that this program, as proposed, really does overreach first of all. And second of all, it really doesn't guarantee that any of the people that are injured that Mr. Frumin mentioned or that Mr. Jeffress has mentioned, really are going to be helped by this. I mean that really is the bottom line. There really are no -- there's no guarantee of results because of the central question: What causes this? That's what we don't know. That's what we need the National Academy of Sciences to help us find out.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Frumin, what changes do you recommend in the approach that OSHA is taking at this point?
ERIC FRUMIN: Well, we believe that, where there are known hazards, whether it's in a auto assembly factory, a garment factory, a nursing home or whether it's in an office, we don't have to wait in this society for workers to become disabled to finally speak up, to have to take time off of work before it's the responsibility, the legal responsibility of their employers to start working on it and fix the job. That's an inhumane approach. We've gotten past that, we thought, in this society. We think prevention before the fact is important. If every worker was assured that they would never be mistreated or disciplined or in any other way harassed because they reported a problem, well, that might be fine, but that's not the American workplace. We know many workers now don't report injuries because they don't know the procedures, they're afraid of speaking up, they don't have protections, most are not in labor unions, and if this proposal takes effect, we'll see millions of workers who suffer in silence and whose employers have to do nothing.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Jeffress, under your rules, would millions of workers -- would the burden be on millions of workers to raise a claim or suffer in silence, as Mr. Frumin says?
CHARLES JEFFRESS: Employers currently record every injury that occurs at the workplace. If they don't record it, they're in violation of the OSHA rules. There are problems with people who don't report it. There are problems with cheating in a lot of different programs that we're all familiar with. But the far majority, the large majority of employees who report pain have it recorded by their employer. This standard in this proposal didn't come out of nowhere. This proposal is built on the best industry practices that businesses reported to us. For Pat to suggest that there's no good science here is wrong. It's just wrong. Businesses told us, "this is what's working for us. This has kept our employees from being hurt. This has saved us money." We're using those best-business practices to propose this standard for all businesses to follow.
PATRICK CLEARY: Could I respond to that? I think Charles makes some good points and he has raced the fact that a lot of companies have some good programs in place and I'm proud to say that many of those companies, if not all, are members of the National Association of Manufacturers. But I think therein ends our agreement because our view is, you know, so little of OSHA's budget is really spent on trying to get employers to show their best practices and help one another and try to find their way clear on this, and the rest of it is really spent on enforcement and on gotcha and our view is that their time would be better spent in trying to show these good programs that are out there, help us try to dramatize these good programs, rather than coming in with a one-size-fits-all solution for all industry, which is going to add enormously to the cost and maybe not have any effect on safety. That's the big unnoble. That's why we need to have the science.
PHIL PONCE: Mr. Frumin, a question: Are you concerned about how long it's taken OSHA to get to the point where they're talking about proposed rules? It's been what, eight years or so? Is that a concern of yours?
ERIC FRUMIN: Well, it's been a lot longer than that. And yes, of course it is a concern and it's going to be years until this rule is final, thanks in no small part to the members of the -- Mr. Cleary's organization who've worked diligently in the congress to block these efforts in the past. And we need to take action now. We have the science now, and we know, as Mr. Jeffress has pointed out, that many employers in fact now are doing this, and they're not waiting for OSHA to tell them; they're doing a better job than OSHA would even require they're here and that's the kind of best practice that OSHA should adopt in a standard for throws negligent employers who ignore their problems and whose workers deserve this kind of protection. American workers deserve a safe place to work. That's what the U.S. Congress said when it passed this law in 1970. We should have had standards on this a decade ago. We knew enough then. It's long since time to have a good standard now, a comprehensive standard, one that really protects all workers, not just union members, and good employers.
PHIL PONCE: Gentlemen, I'm afraid that's all the time we have. I thank you all very much.