The Occupational Safety and Health Administration will take the first step today to require many employers to provide work spaces and equipment to support the physical makeup of each individual doing his job, a proposal that could cover an estimated 27 million people who work at computers, on assembly lines or at other jobs that require either repetitive motions or heavy lifting.

"As we talk about the workplace of the 21st century, this is an increasingly important issue for American workers," Labor Secretary Alexis Herman said.

The proposed standard will be unveiled today after almost eight years of intense opposition from business and some members of Congress, who insist no rule should be issued until there is scientific evidence that "ergonomic" problems at work cause these injuries.

Ergonomics is a relatively new science that involves fitting a job to the physical limitations of the worker. This is an issue in jobs where workers might be exposed to too many repetitive motions, force, awkward postures or overexertion of certain muscles--problems that were not acknowledged in the workplace 50 years ago.

The proposal has two parts: it requires all manufacturers and companies that have workers who do manual lifting--including health care workers who lift patients from beds--to have a program to identify ergonomic issues and teach employees what to watch for. "Our hope is that they report a pain before it gets to be an injury," OSHA Administrator Charles Jeffress said.

The proposal's second part covers any employer that has a worker who reports an ergonomic injury. Once that happens, the employer would have to improve the conditions in that portion of the workplace. Companies could do such things as adjusting workstations, changing the height of an assembly line or buying equipment such as conveyors to mitigate strains from lifting.

Other approaches employers could take would be to have employees rotate jobs, assign them different tasks or slow their pace of work.

"This is going to be a flexible standard tailored to individual workplaces," Herman said.

The proposal is OSHA's first formal attempt to do what some employers already have done: Establish programs that limit employee exposure to working conditions that could contribute to musculoskeletal disorders--injuries to muscles, tendons, ligaments and the spine. These include carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain and tendinitis.

"It's important for us to remember there are real people out there getting hurt," Jeffress said. "It's important that employers and employees address these illnesses. One of the hurdles we have to overcome is the idea that there is no solution to these problems and that people just wear out in certain jobs."

OSHA expects to issue a final rule sometime next year, though that is an ambitious timetable for a proposal that has a 1,000-page preamble. Every company, except those engaged in construction, maritime activities or agriculture, could potentially have to comply if they have an injured worker.

The proposal will be published this week in the Federal Register and OSHA will take comments on it until Feb. 1. The safety agency also will hold three public hearings.

Business groups said they continue to oppose the standard. "We'll use the force of our membership to hold OSHA's feet to the fire to have the science before they regulate," said Jennifer Krese, director of employment policy for the National Association of Manufacturers.

OSHA was forced to pull back from issuing its proposal three times since 1995, when lobbyists succeeded in getting language inserted into several pieces of legislation that barred OSHA from issuing the rule.

Labor unions, on the other hand, want to have coverage of workers expanded so that companies address known problems in certain jobs rather than waiting until after injuries happen.

OSHA estimates that, on average, it will cost $150 a year to fix a particular problem with a workstation. Overall, implementing and enforcing the program would cost $4.2 billion annually, the agency estimates. About 1.9 million work sites are expected to be covered by the standard when it becomes final.

Jeffress said fixes to ergonomic problems need not be costly: a worker who can't reach an assembly line can stand on a box; workers needing to lift heavy objects should be able to do it from the waist instead of the floor; workers could change the height of computer keyboards to alleviate wrist pressure.

The agency said a rule was necessary because ergonomic injuries currently account for more than 647,000 lost days of work a year, a third of the time off given for all injuries and illnesses. The new rule, if implemented, would prevent 300,000 injuries and save employers $9 billion annually, OSHA estimates.

Kevin Burke, vice president of government relations for Food Distributors International, which represents 242 wholesale grocers and food distributors, said OSHA's $4.2 billion annual cost estimate "has no relevance to reality." The distributors think it would cost $26 billion annually if just 80 facilities were retooled to meet the standard.

Some of the jobs covered would be those that involve work on computers or assembly lines, in meat and poultry preparation, sewing, baking, cabinetmaking, baggage handling at airports and bagging and stocking in grocery stores.

Once an employee reports an injury, it would be handled much like a worker's compensation claim and would need to be checked by a health professional. If the injury is determined to be caused by something in the work environment, the employer could then try to fix the workplace problem by doing what is defined by the rule as a "quick fix:" an isolated incident that can be taken care of within 90 days and still is effective a month later.

Employers who have numerous injuries reported by their employees would need more extensive programs, including training employees, analyzing the problem, putting a fix in place, providing medical help and monitoring the situation for three years. But there remedies would only have to be job-specific: a problem on the loading dock does not mean the company has to institute a company-wide program.

Companies that already have programs that incorporate all these elements would be "grandfathered" into the rule, the proposal said. Enforcement of the rule would be through visits by OSHA inspectors.

Employers would have to offer injured workers who are recovering full pay and benefits if the worker has to be put on "light" duty and 90 percent of pay and full benefits if they can't come to work. That protection lasts for six months under the proposal.

Ergonomics Highlights

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says that 1.8 million workers annually have injuries related to overexertion or repetitive motion, with 600,000 injured severely enough to require time off from work. The OSHA proposed ergonomics standard is meant to help prevent such injuries. Here are answers to some questions about the plan:

What is ergonomics?

Ergonomics is the science of fitting a job to a worker; ergonomics programs can prevent work-related musculoskeletal disorders that occur when there is a mismatch between the worker and the task.

What are musculoskeletal disorders?

MSDs are injuries and disorders of the muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage and spinal discs. Exposure to physical work activities and conditions that involve risk factors may cause or contribute to MSDs. To be covered, an MSD injury would have to be diagnosed by a health-care professional and be specifically connected to core activities of a worker's job.

They don't include injuries caused by slips, trips, falls or other similar accidents, but can include: tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, rotator cuff syndrome, sciatica, herniated spinal disc, low-back pain, carpet layer's knee, De Quervain's disease, trigger finger, tarsal tunnel syndrome, epicondylitis, Raynaud's phenomenon.

What work activities may contribute to these types of injuries?

Doing the same motion over and over again; performing tasks that involve long reaches; performing motions constantly without short pauses or breaks in between; maintaining the same position or posture while performing tasks; sitting for a long time; using hand and power tools.

Who would be covered?

* General industry employers with workers involved in manual handling or manufacturing production jobs in about 1.6 million worksites.

* Other general industry employers with one or more workers who experience work-related MSDs after the final standard takes effect, or about 300,000 employers each year.

* Seventy-five percent of industry employers are not likely to need to take any action.

What costs are involved?

* Fixing a workstation averages $150 a year

* Employers will pay $4.2 billion, including $875 million now lost by workers whose income and benefits are not fully covered by workers' compensation.

When would the standard become effective?

The provisions would be implemented in steps over a period of 60 days to three years after OSHA's publication of a final rule, which it expects to issue next year.