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Published on February 23, 2001

OSHA ergonomics cause for alarm

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Opinion

AKRON (Feb. 23, 2001)—An epic confrontation between business and labor is shaping up—the outcome of which could have a profound impact on every dealer´s future as an employer.


What started the brouhaha is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration´s new, 1,688-page Ergonomics Program Standard intended to reduce musculoskeletal disorders among workers.


As employers, tire dealers have much at stake in the outcome. They need to be informed about some onerous requirements of the OSHA standard and support industry efforts to quash it.


Joining together in the hope of blocking enforcement of what has been described as "one of the most burdensome standards ever imposed on American business" is a broad coalition of trade groups led by the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and including this industry´s Tire Association of North America, the International Tire & Rubber Association and Rubber Manufacturers Association.


Supporting the standard is an equally formidable alliance of organized labor, including the United Steel Workers of America, which represents rubber workers.


Several lawsuits have been filed by opponents seeking to block enforcement of OSHA´s ergonomics standard, which went into effect Jan. 16. Meanwhile, at least one U.S. senator has promised a similar effort on the legislative front.


But if the prospect of an OSHA visit brought chills to the dealer´s spine in times past, some frightening provisions of this regulation ought to give the same employer pneumonia.


The regulation pays special attention to a number of maladies that easily might befall tire and automotive service personnel. Among them: carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, herniated spinal disk, tension neck or rotator cuff syndromes, sciatica and low back pain.


Experts who have studied the regulation say its provisions require that when a worker is deemed injured in any of these ways, the employer is obligated to take "protective" measures, such as assigning the employee light duty at 100 percent of normal pay or giving him or her up to 90 days off at 90 percent of pay (offset by Workers Compensation benefits, sick time and vacation time). It can also call for redesigning tools, work stations and processes.


Moreover, such injuries need not be caused by job duties. Conditions related to employment (even those due to aging) are covered if they merely are aggravated by them, experts advise.


Perhaps no less disturbing is the likelihood of increased litigation ensuing from the OSHA regulation´s widened definition of work-related injuries. Trial lawyers, already reaping financial benefits from the public´s mistrust of the tire industry, should relish the prospect of yet another new venue for employer negligence suits.


OSHA´s ergonomics standard should go back to the drawing board for revision—and tire dealers need to help put it there.

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