When I was at OSHA in the early 90s, a lot of work was done on developing an ergonomic standard, essentially trying to put parameters around “how much is too much” in jobs that require repetitive motion. Typing is an obvious example, but there are also many blue collar and factory workers vulnerable to the same resulting injuries, assembly line workers in a factory or chicken processing plant, for example.
The regulation was often the butt of inside the Beltway jokes, and media outlets covering OSHA were intently focused on its progress. OSHA itself was subject to intense scrutiny then. Newt Gingrich had taken control of the House, and the anti-regulatory frenzy was at its peak.
The folks working on the standard were passionate. LIke many others at OSHA, they believed strongly that workers needed to be protected, and that employers could not be trusted to always act in the best interest of their employees. The leader of the ergo group was a woman from the Pacific Northwest, named to the policy team by the Clinton-appointed administrator, also from Washington state. She was a research epidemiologist and insisted that enough was known about “what works” to at least begin to standardize an industry response to work-related cumulative trauma disorders, also known as musculoskeletal injuries. (Side note: She was stunned by how folks in DC lived, and how much they worked! She could not believe how little relaxation and recreation were available, and pined for her kayak and Puget Sound. She and her husband, who headed up the policy team, gave me beautiful Mexican glass votives when I got married. I still have them.)
In an article I found, she is quoted as saying, “It is true that we cannot say exactly how many repetitions are too many for every individual in every situation. That has led some people to conclude that we do not know enough to act on ergonomics, but I think we do. We’re dealing with a mounting problem that can’t wait.”
The challenge in writing the regulation was giving it teeth, making it more than a suggestion to an employer, enforceable. And there’s the rub. Business-friendly organizations and their lobbyists were hostile to any mandates that were not spelled out clearly enough for employers to follow. Or that were.
In any case, the ergo standard died rather suddenly, when the Congressional Review Act–which allowed Congress to review every new federal regulation issued by the government agencies and, by passage of a joint resolution, overrule a regulation, part of Gingrich and company’s Contract with America–was used to, well, overrule the work in progress. I remember the call from the Washington Post reporter asking if it was true that the ergo group had buried the regulation on the grounds of the Labor Department, then held a New Orleans style funeral for their work. It was.
I have been thinking about what happened in 1994 because a very young woman I work with has taken sort of a disability leave from her job as she can no longer type without significant pain. She told me she could tough out the typing, but when she got home, and could not pick up her little girls, well, that was different.
According to a 2007 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, carpal tunnel syndrome was associated with the second longest average time away from work (28 days) among the major disabling diseases and illnesses in all private industries. That must cost employers a fortune! And it is not going to get any better as we go more and more digital. Our country’s enormous health care systems turn to all electronic medical records.
OSHA did eventually publish guidelines (suggestions for employers), but a proposed requirement that employers even record musculoskeletal injuries on their workplace logs was recently pushed to an even further-back burner.
It’s a dilemma. I get that it’s impractical and nearly impossible for the government to regulate the potential damage that typing, or sorting parts, or cutting the heads off chickens may cause. But at the same time, employers know about the prospective impairment–and are already paying for it. Microsoft, ranked the No. 1 multinational workplace by the Great Place to Work Institute, includes “office ergonomics resources and tools” as part of its comprehensive health care offerings. Perhaps that is the best possible solution.