Regulators, industry at odds on repetitive-motion injuries

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2011; 8:24 PM

The strained muscles that affect millions of American workers, from white-collar professionals who spend hours at their computers to poultry workers who process chickens, are proving to be painful as well to the Obama administration.

Labor regulators came into office vowing to press employers to reduce injuries from repetitive motion, an affliction that caused 28 percent of the workforce to miss days on the job in 2009.

But the administration has found itself in a pitched battle with industry, which fears that federal involvement in the matter will result in a massive financial and legal burden. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 3 million businesses, has lobbied vigorously against any additional regulation.

Last week, the administration appeared to take a step back. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration withdrew a proposed rule requiring employers to record repetitive-motion injuries. OSHA saw it as a modest new requirement, simply adding a separate column for such injuries on forms most employers already must maintain.

The move followed an order by President Obama on Jan. 18 that regulatory agencies review rules with an eye toward scuttling those that are unnecessary or put "unreasonable burdens on business."

OSHA also withdrew a proposed interpretation of noise standards that could have forced some employers, who already provide employees with ear protection, to retrofit equipment to make it quieter.

When it comes to repetitive-motion injuries, the politics are so charged that even a minor change sent ripples through the labor and business communities.

"We're angry and we're disappointed by this," said Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO. "If the administration is going to respond to something that should have been a small deal, we're quite concerned about what this might mean for things that have a broad impact."

And, despite the administration's attempt at detente, conflict continues to brew between federal regulators, who want to reduce injuries, and business leaders, who view new rules as ill-conceived.

"If we look at this problem honestly, there is little doubt that musculoskeletal injuries remain one of the biggest workplace health and safety problems in American industry," David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, told a meeting of the American Bar Association in March. "No agency calling itself the Occupational Safety and Health Administration can go long without addressing this issue."

The first step, Michaels has said, is to gather more accurate data on the scope and pattern of the injuries by requiring employers to note them separately on injury logs, so they are not lumped together with other workplace injuries.

Michaels said the agency "temporarily" pulled the proposed rule requiring such recordkeeping because it needed to consult further with small businesses to determine how the change would affect them.

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