Categorized | Workplace

Repetitive Stress: Politics as Usual

Posted on 24 May 2011

Workers and companies will have to monitor themselves.

While tax cuts and environmental issues have dominated coverage of the early Bush administration, today’s desktop-dependent professional may want to look closer. Governmental regulation of–and remedy for–repetitive stress injuries is on the wane.

According to Workers Warmups, a repetitive stress-reduction company, they are the fastest-growing ailments in the workplace today. Individual cases cost an average of 25 days of lost work time, or more than any other employee injury.

High Cost of Compliance
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), working with the White House, proposed major policy changes affecting ergonomics at the end of Bill Clinton’s second term. The rules would have required that injured professionals be compensated with 90 percent of their wages. Also, injured workers reassigned to other tasks would be paid 100 percent of earnings, regardless of the value of the work they perform.

Workplace experts remain divided on the impact of rule changes for desktop-driven professionals.

OSHA estimated more than 650,000 Americans suffer from these disorders because of poor working environments, accounting for more than 34 percent of all work-related injuries and costing an estimated $15 to $20 billion annually.

Congress and the Bush administration, however, have reversed these proposed rule changes. The potential cost of implementation was a major concern. OSHA estimated the new ergonomics laws would cost businesses $5 billion annually. But other organizations said it would cost much more. The Small Business Administration, for example, projected $18 million. The Employment Policy Foundation pegged it at $126 billion.

Also damaging for proponents of the new rules: A January report from the National Academy of Sciences indicating that musculoskeletal disorders are caused by more than work-related injuries. Age, gender, obesity, lack of exercise, vitamin deficiency, stress, and lifestyle are all contributing factors. There is no ‘magic bullet’ available to cure these disorders, the report concluded.

Major Implications
Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill argues that all OSHA standards, including ergonomics, should be replaced by one voluntary standard. He’d like to see no more than two workdays lost due to injury for every 100 employees, every year. Currently, the nation’s workplaces average 3.5 workdays lost annually for every 100 employees.

Workplace experts remain divided on the impact of rule changes for desktop-driven professionals. John Domenech is chief operating officer of NetCompliance, an online workplace training and compliance firm that monitors OSHA policy. He sees the new administration as being fairer to both employee and employer.

“The Clinton administration created incentive for a claim,” says Domenech. “A person with an injury could claim 90 percent of their salary, tax-free. In essence, they end up with more money with an injury than if they keep working. And how do you define how that injury came about? If the person works in a cube, but then surfs the Web for five hours a night at home, did the job cause the problem or was it the Web surfing at night?”

Josh Kerst is vice president and ergonomics engineer at Humantech, a Michigan-based human performance firm specializing in occupational ergonomics. He believes that workers shouldn’t fear any policy shifts.

“There are sunrise companies and there are sunset companies,” Kerst says. “Sunrise companies see the benefit of health and safety efforts for all the right reasons–low turnover, communications within the organization, etc. Sunset companies are too busy going out of business with systems in disrepair and financial problems. They do the minimum to get by. Professionals shouldn’t fear health and safety regulations going away. They should fear sunset companies.”

Linda Walker, founder of, a San Diego-based workplace safety compliance resource, thinks the scuttled OSHA rules won’t really affect impact today’s professional. “In most cases,” she says, workers “can easily control the layout of their workstation in ways that will make the most difference to their comfort. They can put their monitor directly in front of their keyboard. They can learn to adjust chairs and monitors. They can get in good physical condition, eat right, take breaks, and walk as often as possible.”

But Jim Walsh, editor of OSHA in the Real World, believes the policy shift is a major setback. “The recently-departed ergonomic standard was designed to give federal regulators a tool for cracking down on carpal tunnel syndrome. It would have given OSHA a reason to inspect offices as well as factories. The reality is that, unless there is a serious or fatal injury in the office, there isn’t much of a chance of OSHA getting involved in office issues. Some economists will argue that this is one more step toward a modern workplace. But new economies and modern workplaces don’t matter much when your wrist is throbbing. When that starts,” he adds, “you’ll have to look to state workers’ comp systems for help.”


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