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Workers To Get Job-Injury Protection

Updated:
WASHINGTON (AP) — Workers who spend their day typing on a computer or repeatedly lifting heavy boxes are among the more than 100 million Americans to receive new protections from job-related injuries under standards being issued by the Clinton administration.

But the rules, ready for release Monday, were so contentious that they helped torpedo budget negotiations between the White House and Republican lawmakers. They are sure to face a court challenge by business interests.

Organized labor had pushed for the regulations, which could force companies to alter work stations, redesign facilities or change tools once employees are found to suffer work-related injuries.

``Employers already have begun putting ergonomic programs in place,'' Charles Jeffress, head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said in an interview. ``By adding the impetus of a standard, we think we can reach out and protect more workers than are currently covered.''

The standards take effect in January, but business will have until October to come into compliance. Some of the 6 million workplaces covered by the rule may have to do little more than provide workers with information about ergonomics-related injuries and their symptoms.

If, however, a worker reports symptoms of a musculoskeletal disorder — such as carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain and tendinitis — the employer must determine whether that problem is connected to the job. If so, the worker is entitled to medical care and time off with pay. The employer must then examine more broadly if that job exposes workers to risks and take steps to reduce the hazards.

OSHA hopes the standards will prevent 460,000 workers from getting hurt on the job each year. It says 1.8 million workers have musculoskeletal injuries related to ergonomic factors, and 600,000 people miss some work because of them annually.

According to OSHA, the rules would cost businesses some $4.5 billion to implement but would reap $9 billion a year in savings from medical expenses and workers' compensation.

But business leaders sharply dispute the cost figures, citing a think-tank study that estimated costs of more than $90 billion a year.

``We do not believe that there is an adequate scientific basis that (the rule) meets the statutory requirement, and we believe it is unconstitutionally vague,'' said Stephen Bokat, senior vice president and general counsel of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The group will seek to overturn the standard in court.

Labor officials contend the new standards do not place an undue burden on employers because companies need not take preventive action against hazardous conditions.

``In some respects, the rule is quite conservative,'' said Peg Seminario, health and safety director for the AFL-CIO. ``It requires a significant level of exposure. The idea that any ache or pain is what is triggering exposure here is not the case.''

Once a musculoskeletal disorder is determined to be work-related, employers must look more closely at the nature of the job to see if it exposes workers to risk factors that include:

—Repeating the same motions every few seconds.

—Using a keyboard or mouse for more than four hours a day.

—Repeatedly working with the hands above the head for more than two hours a day.

The employers then would have to take steps to reduce these hazards.

Given the Republican opposition, the White House offered to allow OSHA to issue the rules this year but put off implementing them until next June, allowing the next president the opportunity to block them.

But GOP leaders balked, saying this provision did not go far enough and that once issued, the new president might have a hard time rescinding the rules.

That helped stall final agreement on the $350 billion labor-health-education spending bill, one of the items still to be enacted by Congress for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

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On the Net: OSHA: http://www.osha.gov

U.S. Chamber of Commerce: http://www.uschamber.org

AFL-CIO: http://www.aflcio.org
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