Can Ergonomics Be Legislated?

Hoping to save workers from developing ailments such as carpal tunnel syndrome, the Labor Department is proposing regulations Monday that would require employers to correct injury-causing workplace conditions.

The proposal would affect about 1.9 million work sites - one of every three - and more than 27 million workers, CBS News Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports.

Each year, 1.8 million workers have musculoskeletal injuries related to ergonomic factors and 600,000 people miss some work because of them, according to the department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The injuries to muscles, nerves, ligaments and tendons include such problems as carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain and tendonitis.

"Work-related musculoskeletal disorders such as back injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome are the most prevalent, most expensive and most preventable workplace injuries in the country," said Labor Secretary Alexis Herman.

"Real people are suffering real injuries that can disable their bodies and destroy their lives," she added. "The good news is that real solutions are available."

The regulations proposed by OSHA have been in the works for eight years. Many business groups oppose the plan, saying it's too costly and unnecessary, reports CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante.

Under the plan, any company with workers and manufacturing or manual lifting to set up programs to identify and report ergonomic injuries.

The new rules would cover a broad range of workers from nurses aides who must lift heavy patients, to baggage handlers at airports and people who work at computers or on assembly lines.

"We are compelled to act," declared Charles Jeffress of OSHA. "Employees are getting hurt, workers are being sent home, people are suffering. It's time for OSHA to move on."

Under the rules, a worker who has an ergonomic injury diagnosed by a doctor would be entitled to have the work environment fixed to relieve the cause -- by changing the height of an assembly line or computer keyboard, for example.

Charles Jeffress of OSHA
At workplaces with numerous incidents of ergonomic injury, employers would have to provide medical help and safety retraining for workers in addition to fixing physical problems.

In addition, the rule would require companies with workers who do manual heavy lifting to provide preventive training.

The proposed rules would not become final until next year at the earliest, after a public comment period.

The cost of the program is estimated at $4.2 billion a year, with employers spending approximately $150 per workstation to fix existing problems. The Labor Department estimtes the new rules could prevent injury to about 300,000 workers annually and save the U.S. economy $9 billion.

Ergonomic injuries currently cost $15 billion to $20 billion annually for workers' compensation and $30 billion to $40 billion in other expenses such as medical care, the agency said.

Business representatives attacked the thousand-page OSHA proposal as woefully short on specifics.

"Employers might hire a hundred lawyers and still aren't going to be able to figure out what the standard is supposed to do, what it's supposed to require of them," claimed Randy Johnson of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "And that is offensive."

Then there's the cost to employers. OSHA claims the first year it'll be over $4 billion.

Employers, like Kevin Burke of Food Distributors International, say the costs will reach into the "hundreds of billions of dollars -- costs that in our view would result in closed plants and warehouses and lost jobs. And of course this is going o be reflected in the cost of goods to the American consumer."

The Small Business Administration also says OSHA is way off the mark and estimates the cost to businesses at $18 billion a year. A trade group says it would be more than that -- $26 billion.

The Clinton administration says there are no politics involved in the plan, but big businesses are very skeptical about that since the unions strongly support the regulations.

OSHA is expected to issue a final rule sometime next year. 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.