With repetitive motion injuries accounting for nearly half the nation's occupational illnesses, the Labor Department yesterday took the first major step toward developing mandatory standards to protect workers from the factory floor to the executive suite.

The department issued comprehensive ergonomic guidelines for the nation's meatpacking industry and said the voluntary standards would be used as the basis for starting the federal process leading to mandatory rules for all industries.

"These painful and crippling illnesses now make up 48 percent of all recordable industrial workplace illnesses," said Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole. "We must do our utmost to protect workers from these hazards, not only in the red meat industry, but all U.S. industries."

Dole acknowledged that drawing up and implementing mandatory standards would be a long process. "We're not talking months, we're talking years," she said.

Repetitive motion injuries, almost unknown as a work-related problem a decade ago, are now being reported in almost every industry -- from the kill floors of the meatpacking industry to the data processing centers of major insurance companies where workers may make as many as 23,000 key strokes a day.

Repetitive motion injuries, also known as cumulative trauma disorders, are injuries to the musculoskeletal and nervous systems from a worker being forced to repeatedly perform a job in an awkward position for extended periods of time. Injuries include such disorders as carpal tunnel syndrome, tendon disorders and lower back injuries.

Ergonomics is the science of fitting the job to the worker rather than forcing the worker to contort to fit the job. Dole said correcting ergonomic hazards in the workplace "involves such measures as designing flexible work stations which can be adjusted to suit individuals and relying on tools developed to minimize physical stress and eliminate crippling injuries. It begins with organizing work processes with the physical needs of the worker in mind."

The new guidelines for the red meat industry reflect that philosophy. They run to more than 20 pages of instruction, with three main categories:

Workplace analysis to identify hazards and recommend solutions. The solutions may range from a simple adjustment in the height of a work station to expensive engineering controls.

Training programs -- and annual retraining sessions -- to teach employees how to limit stress and strain in their jobs and help curb the causes of repetitive motion injuries.

Medical management programs, using health care professionals, to treat, identify and report repetitive motion injuries.

The guidelines for the red meat industry were worked out over a period of nearly a year by the department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the American Meat Institute and the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents a majority of union workers in the 140,000-employee industry.

The department said the meatpacking industry has 10 times the injury rate of other industries.

Under the program announced yesterday, employers in the meatpacking industry who adopt the guidelines can escape OSHA fines if government inspections show they have been making a good-faith effort to comply.

Gerard F. Scannell, the assistant labor secretary in charge of OSHA, said employers who do not develop a plan will be the targets of special government inspections starting in January. Even though the standards are voluntary, OSHA inspectors are expected to use them to judge the safety of a plant.

Earlier in the month, Food Workers union President William Wynn denounced the OSHA inspection policy. In a letter to Scannell, he said the policy would, in effect, amount to an exemption from inspections for any meatpacker that filed a plan with OSHA. The department said yesterday it would continue to negotiate with the union and the American Meat Institute over the inspection policy.