New Repetitive Strain Rules May Be Challenged

New safety rules on repetitive strain and back injuries went into effect Jan. 16, but some Republicans and businesses aim to fight back through budget cuts and lawsuits. The AFL-CIO tells workers to urge their lawmakers to support the rules.

Peg Seminario of the AFL-CIO

(WOMENSENEWS)-Among Bill Clinton's last acts as president was to override a decade-long congressional blockade against new Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations to protect workers, mostly women, from repetitive strain injuries. The rules went into effect Jan. 16.

The AFL-CIO estimates that 6 million Americans have suffered repetitive strain injuries on the job in the last 10 years, while Congress stalled the safety agency's proposed ergonomics standards intended to protect workers.

The AFL-CIO calls repetitive strain injuries “the biggest job safety problem in the workplace today” and urges workers to resist expected efforts by the new administration to roll back the safety rules.

Most of the repetitive strain injury sufferers are women. Women file two-thirds of workers' compensation claims for the injuries, compared with one-third of workers' compensation claims for other injuries and illnesses. The injuries include tendonitis, bursitis, tennis elbow, carpal tunnel syndrome and thoracic outlet syndrome, which affects the nerve bundle under the collarbone.

The Bush administration already has put some of Clinton's executive orders on hold and called for review of measures like the worker safety standards.

One of the new regulations' opponents, the National Coalition on Ergonomics, represents large and small employers nationwide and has pledged to “work vigorously to overturn” the safety standard in the courts, through Congress and through administrative processes.

Ergonomics is the process of designing work environments and training workers to reduce the physical stress on workers' bodies and thus the number of repetitive strain injuries.

The Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and about 10 other major organizations also have filed suits against the standard. Ironically, many coalition members will not be affected by the new safety standard because they already have implemented ergonomics programs.

These regulations will be difficult to undo because the safety standard actually went into effect and the Bush administration will have to wait for a court decision before seeking to stay the new regulation.

Some members of Congress and business people oppose what they describe as the safety agency's unjustified interference in private business and consider implementation of safety standards a costly measure that will unacceptably reduce their profits and increase paperwork. Some claim many injuries are not related to work and that, despite evidence to the contrary, no scientific link exists between injuries and certain work activities.

Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO health and safety director in Washington, has closely monitored the battles over these regulations and warns that a new Congress might yet try to overturn the regulations through budget cuts or legislative action. The New York Coalition on Occupational Safety and Health says it expects a backlash to begin late this month.

New Rules Require Education of Workers on Strain Injury Dangers

The new safety regulations require all employers in general industry to educate their workers about the symptoms of musculoskeletal disorders, another name for repetitive strain injuries, and the importance of seeking help as soon as symptoms are apparent. They must educate workers about the main risk factors associated with their specific jobs.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration estimates that more than 100 million workers would be educated by October 2001-and that 4.6 million injuries would be prevented in the first 10 years.

In addition, to ensure that workers will not be fired for reporting injuries, the new standard makes injured workers eligible for a work restriction program of up to three months. Employers must pay 100 percent of the injured worker's salary and abide by work restrictions or provide temporary alternate duty.

“We anticipate that most, if not all, current programs will immediately meet, or can be easily fine-tuned to meet, the more flexible requirements under this provision,” said Charles Jeffress, assistant secretary of labor, in announcing the standards on Jan. 16. The only change necessary for most programs, Jeffress said, will be to adopt a musculoskeletal disorders, or repetitive strain injuries, management policy by Jan. 16, 2002.

Last fall, just before the election, the Clinton administration and Republican leaders announced a compromise on the Labor and Health department budgets that would permit the safety agency to issue its repetitive strain injury regulations, effective in July 2001. The extended deadline would have given an incoming administration time to modify the new standard.

However, the day after the compromise was reached, Republican leaders announced they would no longer support it and tried to introduce new riders that would restrict the safety agency's funding for ergonomics.

Clinton responded by sending the agency's budget to the Office of Management and Budget separately from the education and health care components. Two months after the budget office gave its approval last November, the safety agency published the new regulations, effective immediately.

In 1990 Elizabeth Dole Introduced Ergonomics Standards for Meatpacking

The ergonomics push began in 1990 when Elizabeth Dole, then secretary of labor, introduced ergonomics standards for meatpacking, substantially reducing repetitive strain injuries in that industry. Since that time, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has attempted to expand ergonomics standards to cover the entire workforce. Republican resistance sparked some of the fiercest political battles ever waged on Capitol Hill.

Congressional lawmakers have repeatedly attempted to restrict the safety administration's activities-a semi-autonomous enforcement agency, reporting to the secretary of labor, not to Congress-by putting restrictive riders on its appropriations and by attempting to strip it of funding and authority.

Members of Congress also sought to prevent the agency from publishing any research that links musculoskeletal disorders and strain injuries with certain job conditions. They demanded the National Academy of Sciences review any research. Two weeks ago, on Jan. 18, the academy for a second time confirmed its conclusions that some work-related activities cause repetitive strain injuries and that ergonomic programs protect workers.

Women More Susceptible to Repetitive Strain Injuries Than Men

Women are more susceptible than men to repetitive strain injuries; many believe it is because the jobs held mainly by women tend to be highly repetitive and hand-intensive. Furniture and workstations also are usually built to accommodate male bodies, forcing women to move and reach awkwardly. After their paid jobs are done, women's hands continue working at home.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports about 300,000 lost-time incidents annually due to upper body strain injuries. Painful and potentially permanently disabling repetitive strain injuries rob women of the use of their hands. Some patients cannot lift their children, spread butter on toast, pick up a pen to write or wash and style their hair. In the most acute phase of tendonitis, the patient cannot feed herself.

Workers with carpal tunnel syndrome miss more work days, 25 days on average, than workers with any other type of major disabling condition, including amputation, according to the AFL-CIO. Women constitute 70 percent of carpal tunnel syndrome cases.

In addition, ergonomics experts have found that many women's jobs considered “light work” actually involve substantial weight. For instance, a grocery cashier packs and lifts an average of 11,000 pounds of groceries during a typical day. Someone who sews T-shirts probably moves hundreds of pounds of fabric each day.

Gender also affects medical treatment. Early intervention is essential to prevent permanent damage, yet women who complain about early symptoms are often dismissed as imagining problems or malingering. In advanced stages, repetitive strain injuries rarely respond to conventional treatments and are frequently subject to misdiagnosis and unnecessary surgery.

The agency's new standard also includes preventive measures for back injuries. Although men report back injuries twice as often as women, backs are a particular issue for women in healthcare, such as nurses, nurses' aides and physiotherapists who often strain their backs when they lift patients.

Penney Kome has been researching repetitive strain injuries since 1993. She is the author of “Wounded Workers: The Politics of Musculoskeletal Injuries,” University of Toronto Press, 1998. She lives in Calgary, Alberta.