Workplace stress is declining. Does OSHA notice?

The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is moving ahead with an ambitious ergonomics standard designed to deal with the huge array of "muscular-skeletal disorders," or MSDs, that workers often experience. OSHA estimates the cost to exceed $4 billion a year, substantially beyond the economic burden of any previous OSHA directive. The agency says the annual benefits will be far greater (about $9 billion). But is all this really necessary?

The coverage of the proposed ergonomics standard would be extensive. It takes OSHA 50 pages to cite the rules, 250 pages to explain the rules, and more than 1,000 pages to enumerate the 100 or more injury categories that OSHA describes. Moreover, the standard's intricate requirements would be triggered by a single impairment of one employee at a factory or other facility, and the "impairment" may have only a minimal connection to the person's job functions.

The Small Business Administration, which like OSHA is a part of the executive branch of the federal government, estimates the cost of the ergonomics standard to be much higher - between $11 billion and $63 billion annually. Private estimates are higher still.

The development of the ergonomics standard provides an interesting case study of how regulators develop their role. Initially, the standard was supposed to deal with the problem of repetitive-motion disorders - such as those related to typing or similar repetitive motions.

However, while developing the standard, OSHA learned that the number of repeated trauma cases peaked at less than 350,000 in 1994, and declined to about 250,000 in 1998 (less than 5 percent of the occupational injuries and illnesses reported for the year). Only those unfamiliar with the ways of government would expect OSHA to drop the matter just because the problem was being solved without its intervention.

Instead, OSHA broadened the scope of the proposed ergonomics standard to include "overexertion" that results from bending, climbing, crawling, reaching, and twisting.

However, as noted by Ron Bird of the Employment Policy Foundation, the causes of "bodily reaction" injuries have few clear links to ergonomic hazards (which supposedly arise from using equipment and other "things"). Moreover, the solutions or prevention of such injuries has little to gain from ergonomics programs or ergonomic design of workstations.

Not only is there the natural tendency of regulators to underestimate the costs they impose on the rest of us. They also tend to overestimate the benefits of the rules they impose.

OSHA claims that its proposed ergonomics rules will cut the incidence of MSDs in half over 10 years.

However, the overall incidence of MSDs (the total array of muscular-skeletal disorders that are the focus of the proposed standard) is already declining at a

more rapid rate than that without OSHA's intervention.

From 110.6 cases per 10,000 in 1992, the overall incidence of MSDs declined by 31 percent - to 76.6 cases just five years later.

OSHA's proposed ergonomics standard, despite the likelihood that it will not do a great deal of good in terms of accelerating the trend of improvements that are well under way, would impose expensive requirements - including assessing job hazards, training workers, providing medical surveillance of affected workers, furnishing paid leave for ergonomic rest cures, and implementing costly engineering, work-practice, and equipment changes.

In contrast, a new study by Richard J. Mahoney and Milka S. Kirova, published by the Center for the Study of American Business, proposes a more modest approach.

They recommend that the agency collaborate with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health on serious studies into the real causes of MSDs and that OSHA provide a clearinghouse for collection and dissemination of what works in the vague and broad area of ergonomics.

The sensible notion of study first and regulate later would be an innovation in the realm of federal regulation.

*Murray Weidenbaum is chairman of the Center for the Study of American Business at Washington University in St. Louis.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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