Technically, ergonomics is the science of designing human environments to prevent repetitive stress injuries, or RSIs, such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Politically, its a hot-button issue that for many business-people has become synonymous with all that's wrong with government regulation.
During the 104th Congress, Republican lawmakers stopped the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's ergonomics regulatory effort in its tracks by attaching a rider to the agency's finding bill forbidding such activity. With one vote, ergonomics went from OSHA's priority to the fed's forbidden fruit.
Meanwhile, California developed its own ergonomics standard, which the state Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board unanimously approved Nov. 14. California is one of 23 states and two U.S. territories that operates its own safety and health agency.
Under the California standard, companies with at least two employees doing identical tasks who have been diagnosed with RSIs within a 12-month period must evaluate their work site for RSI hazards. They then must control hazards by installing ergonomically designed equipment or rotating workers so they perform repetitive tasks for shorter periods. They also must educate workers about the potential for injury. Assuming the Office of Administrative Law approves the measure, the standard takes effect in mid-January.
Although considerably less sweeping than past proposals, the California standard has drawn fire from a broad range of employers. "Theres nothing in this regulation which assures the reduction of even one workplace illness or injury," Marc Freedman, directors of government affairs for the Painting and Decorating Contractors of America, tells Insight. "The only sure result is a multibilion-dollar price tag which taxpayers and business firms will be forced to pay."
California public schools are among the standards strongest critics. "At a time when schools are struggling to buy new textbooks ... spending even $1 on an experimental ergonomic regulation is an injudicious use of funds," says Doug Adams, safety coordinator for the San Diego Unified School District. "If there were any reason to think this regulation would actually make schools safer for our workers, that would be one thing. But we have no reason to believe that it will, because no one knows the causes or remedies for repetitive-motion injuries."
To be sure, not even experts can agree on the exact causes of or best prevention tactics for RSIs. …