Dozens of business groups have joined in a lawsuit to block OSHA from enforcing ergonomic standards.

Several new developments regarding the future of OSHA ergonomic reform have recently come to light. In spite of congressional opposition to the regulations, 64 days before the inauguration of the next commander in chief, President Clinton gave the approval that allows the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) to implement its ergonomics standards this year. In response, dozens of business groups have joined in a lawsuit to block OSHA from enforcing the regulations.

On Nov. 23, 1999, OSHA officially proposed a new set of ergonomic standards that would govern the majority of workplaces in the United States. By providing more paid leave and empowering inspectors to propose ergonomic workplace changes and employee training, these new standards are supposed to protect workers against musculoskeletal workplace-related injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

The net effect of the opposition's lawsuit, according to Ron Reese, senior director of government relations for the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors (NAW), Washington, D.C, is that, "This is in the hands of the lawyers."

Because the future of ergonomics is no longer a legislative matter, the timetable for any kind of relief from this for businesses has been extended almost indefinitely.

Ergonomics experts and business leaders are still far from agreeing on this issue. While business groups insist that they already have preventative measures to curb musculoskeletal disorders, OSHA's intention is to prevent further injuries.

Jennifer Krese, director of employment policy for the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), Washington, D.C., sees the regulations as unnecessary due to trends in the number of musculoskeletal injuries. "This administration's own Department of Labor is telling us that repetitive motion complaints have been on the decline since 1994," she said.

The real area of immense disagreement is in how much these implementations will cost. According to OSHA, these regulations will ultimately save money through efficiency and fewer employee absences.

"It will cost money to implement the training, but what (OSHA has) tried to demonstrate is that you will save money in the long run because people won't be getting hurt," said Cindy Burt, manager of ergonomics programs for the University of California-Los Angeles. Some groups, however, suggest that these changes will cost businesses hundreds of billions of dollars. Reese said he was skeptical that OSHA's ergonomic regulations would ever save money. "From our standpoint, that's something they've been unable to prove as of yet," he said.

The vagueness of the implementation and enforcement of these regulations is the biggest problem, Krese said. "They haven't specified if new machines need to be put in or if levels of machinery need to be changed. They're leaving that up to companies, which on the one hand looks positive. However, companies need guidance."

It's not clear whether OSHA's regulations are specific enough to actually help anyone, or if they may just end up costing businesses money and increasing their liability for lawsuits. Under the new rules, once one worker is injured, everyone else with that same job will be working under new safety standards. Burt admitted that even determining who had the same effective job tasks would be another area of uncertainty.

Perhaps the biggest uncertainty for business stems from the power that lies in the hands of those who must determine what specific changes will take place: the inspectors.

"There's a big disconnect between the regulators who are writing these regulations in Washington and the people who are actually implementing them," Krese said. "It's all based upon (the inspectors') own discretion."

Although OSHA has been preparing this for nearly 10 years, the timing of the regulations' approval is of great controversy. The regulations were approved by President Clinton exactly four days before the administration fell under a "lame duck" rule making any executive order very difficult to permanently put in place. And, the results of a government-funded National Academy of Sciences study, about to be released in February, are seemingly being ignored. OSHA claims that this study is redundant and just a larger version of another study already completed.

To NAM's Krese, NAW's Reese and others, however, all the loose ends make this massive regulation seem rushed and unfinished.

"I think it's a little crass for OSHA to say, `Regardless of what this million dollar taxpayer study finds, we already know what they're gonna say and we know what's best.' That's a blatant disregard for the taxpayers and the Congress who authorized it. They knew that under a Republican administration, this far-reaching, very controversial regulation would not be promulgated," Reese said.