High-tech companies want to study OSHA ergonomic proposal
(IDG) -- Several technology companies this week say they are adopting a wait-and-see attitude toward new workplace regulations proposed by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The plan, which would apply to 27 million U.S. workers, would cost $4.2 billion to put in place. However, the plan would save $9 billion a year in workers compensation payouts among other costs, OSHA says.
About 1.6 million employers would need to implement a basic ergonomics program that would set up a formal system for employees to report signs and symptoms of work-related problems they encounter and formalize a management response.
Comments on the proposal are due Feb. 1, 2000, with informal public hearings beginning Feb. 22, 2000.
"Work-related musculoskeletal disorders such as back injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome are the most prevalent, most expensive and most preventable workplace injuries in the country," says U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman. "Real people are suffering real injuries that can disable their bodies and destroy their lives. The good news is that real solutions are available."
Business groups strongly criticized the proposal, saying it will cost far more to implement than OSHA's projections. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says it will file a lawsuit to fight the proposal if necessary.
The OSHA proposal includes workplace environments where repetitive stress injuries can result from the use of computers, but failed to provide specific guidelines, says Peter Eide, manager of labor law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
"The proposal is not proscriptive enough," Eide says. "It doesn't say that you should provide movable keyboards and things like that. It says that if you have a job with likely ergonomic impact, you need to take steps to make sure nobody gets harmed."
Technology companies were rather noncommittal in their response to the OSHA proposal.
"We are following the proposal," Dell spokeswoman Neisha Frank says. "We've always been concerned about the safety and welfare of our employees and have taken steps to comply with OSHA. Our compliance team will be studying the proposal. It's a little too soon to make a statement about it yet."
"From our perspective, we want to wait until we comment," Hewlett-Packard spokeswoman Anne McGrath says. "We have a [worker safety] plan in place."
Intel will study the proposal, but believes its present ergonomics program already provides comprehensive workplace safety and includes mandatory ergonomic assessment and training, Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy says.
The chip company's reportable injury rate worldwide dropped 33% in each of the past four years, while its sprain/strain injury rate dropped 37% in the same period, Mulloy says.
"We clearly need to take a look at the proposal, but we are confident we have a good program in place," Mulloy says.
The ergonomics proposal is scheduled to appear in the Nov. 23 Federal Register. More information on the proposal can be found on OSHA's Web site (see link below).
OSHA is also making available at no charge a CD-ROM with the regulatory text, the preamble, the complete regulatory analysis and the full discussion of health effects. The CD-ROM and printed copies can be ordered over the Web or by calling 202-693-1888.
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