Federal ergonomic standards that existed 16 years ago for a fleeting two months continue to benefit employers and workers even though they were never implemented.
The government’s bark eventually proved bigger than its bite, which is a good thing, because 16 years ago the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was ready to take a big bite out of employers’ wallets.
The threat of that bite, though, helped propel improved ergonomic practices, which evolved and continue to eliminate injuries, costs and lost work days.
President Bill Clinton signed ergonomic standards into law four days before vacating the White House in January 2001. His successor, President George W. Bush, scuttled the rules two months later.
The rules championed by President Clinton required companies with two or more related injuries to evaluate for ergonomic hazards and reduce exposures by, for example, limiting worker task repetitions or modifying assembly lines.
The back and forth between Presidents Clinton and Bush followed at least a decade of organized labor pushing for ergonomic standards. Labor and Democrats argued they would benefit employers and workers by eliminating workplace injuries.
OSHA estimated the standards would cost employers $4.5 billion annually, but save them $9 billion.
Employers and Republicans fought adoption, arguing they would cost more than $100 billion.
President Bush agreed, calling the new regulations “unduly burdensome and overly broad.”
The ergonomics rules helped fuel this nationwide awareness. They helped sound a wake-up call for employers.
Most distressing, the regulations required paying injured workers nearly their full salary while they were out mending their injuries.
Heck, if that arrangement was available today I might be on the disabled list receiving workers’ comp benefits right now while complaining of a sore-wrist injury rather than standing at my desk writing this column.
You can see why the regulations threw employers into a panic until President Bush calmed their fears.
The standards that never became law still impact businesses and workers though.
They arrived in an era when the frequency of cumulative trauma claims was already a problem. Awareness of the injuries was already building among labor, workers themselves, regulators, claimants attorneys, and claims payors.
Employers learned, during this era, that they were paying for back and carpal tunnel surgeries for simple injuries that could have been prevented with good ergonomics, and treated with physical therapy.
The ergonomics rules helped fuel this nationwide awareness. They helped sound a wake-up call for employers, recalled Sean McDonald, Workforce Strategies Ergonomics Practice Leader at Marsh Risk Consulting.
“Even though it fell apart as a rule, it became known that it was a good business practice,” he said.
At least since 2001, worker injury statistics show cumulative trauma claims have been gradually declining, similar to the long-term decline in overall workers’ comp claims frequency.
This is especially good because today’s injuries tend to be more severe than they were 16 years ago. The rise in comorbidities and an aging workforce make them more challenging today.
So that increased awareness and attention to the need for safety measures to prevent ergonomic-related injuries is even more valuable now than it was back then. &