Custom Print Inc. is buddy-buddy with agencies that most small businesses consider their biggest nemeses.

To date, the Arlington printer has never locked horns with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Internal Revenue Service or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the three federal agencies that are its closest overseers. Custom Print emits few toxic fumes, hires auditors and consultants to check regulatory compliance and keeps volumes of records on the training and safety procedures for its 25 employees, according to C. Stuart McMichael, the company's president and principal.

McMichael, a chipper 53-year-old who keeps a life-size cardboard cutout of President Clinton behind his desk, served on an EPA task force two years ago, where he rubbed shoulders with Administrator Carol M. Browner. When he took over as president of the shop 12 years ago, he changed the plant over to environmentally friendly soy-based ink and used more recycled paper, which helped him earn the Virginia Governor's Environmental Excellence Award in 1997.

His chummy relationship with regulators may end, however, with OSHA's latest proposal -- ergonomic standards that McMichael says would cost his $3 million-a-year business untold amounts in union employee time, lost production and extra oversight.

"Someone told me it's a 1,200-page ergonomics document; how would I load that on top of everything else?" McMichael said.

Already, McMichael spends 25 percent of his time dealing with his environmental commitments, and Custom Print's plant manager spends 10 percent of his day maintaining regulatory records, McMichael said. Every year, "tens of thousands" of dollars are spent on training, chemical testing and ergonomic equipment, "which I believe you do regardless; I see those things as a common cost of doing business," he said. But ergonomics, which tailor the work space to meet the physical limitations of the worker, are not an exact science that ensures a cure, he said.

During McMichael's tenure running Custom Print, not one of the 16 printers, seven office workers or two drivers has filed for workers' compensation or so much as slipped on ice in the parking lot. So why fix something that ain't broke, McMichael asks rhetorically.

The answer is simple, according to Charles N. Jeffress, who heads OSHA: It makes sense for the bottom line. A third of all workplace injuries come from ergonomic problems, which adds up to lost productivity for companies, he said. "A lot of businesses are already investing in this, and businesses don't spend money unless it makes sense," he said.

The rule, which Jeffress hopes will be finalized by the end of next year, would affect about 1.6 million businesses employing 27 million people.

OSHA estimates that fixing a workstation costs an average of $150 per year, or a total employer outlay nationally of $4.2 billion a year. But 75 percent of general industry employers will not have to take any action, according to the agency.

A company like Custom Print may not be affected, Jeffress said, if the business doesn't involve manufacturing or heavy lifting and no one reports an injury.

But McMichael is skeptical: In his experience, OSHA typically underestimates costs. Small businesses -- even those inside the Beltway, such as Custom Print -- often find themselves in violation because they don't find out about new rules like this until they're passed, he said.

According to a September study by the Small Business Administration, "any standard requiring the training of employees (such as the Ergo standard) is likely to impose a disproportionate burden upon small businesses as compared to large businesses," because of the higher turnover rates in small operations.

Jeffress said the ergonomics rule comes to 24 pages, accompanied by 970 pages of economic impact analysis. Businesses will have up to three years to bring themselves to compliance, he said.

Steve DeSanto, a 20-year veteran at Custom Print, says the rule will make no difference in his life. The pre-press operator, who spends half his time on the computer, has never dealt with carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis or any other injury on the job.

"We've had training over the years, but no problems," he said.

Custom Print Inc.

Commercial Printer

Regulators: Environmental Protection Agency, Internal Revenue Service and Occupational Safety and Health Administration