A poor understanding of ergonomics and poorly designed office spaces combine to cause physical pain for many workers. To fix these problems, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has proposed new safety requirements that may hurt their employer's wallet even more.
OSHA's proposal would require any business that employs more than 20 people to pay fines and institute an ergonomic policy if even a single employee suffers from a repetitive stress injury or musculoskeletal disorder. If one employee develops carpal tunnel syndrome, the employer will have to adjust the workstations of every one of its employees.
"They need to take a look at the job and make some changes," says David Cochrane, an ergonomist at OSHA. "They also need to provide appropriate management, including access to doctors. We have worked hard to make this standard reflect what's happening at companies that already have good ergonomics."
But most small businesses can't afford to make extensive changes, according to Tom Sullivan, the executive director of the National Federation of Independent Business' legal foundation. "Any regulation costs our members more than it does larger businesses," Sullivan says. Big companies have dedicated staff and benefit from economies of scale. "Small businesses don't have a management structure to do this. They don't have a VP for safety."
Datagraphic Computer Services Inc., a data entry and document imaging company in North Hollywood, Calif., has been trying to comply with the state of California's ergonomic requirements for two years now, and has found the cost to be too high. "Some of the things they're asking us to do, as a small business we can't afford," says Rose Chow, the General Manager of Datagraphic Computer Services Inc., a data entry and document imaging company in North Hollywood, Calif. "I don't mind complying, but when they tell you to spend $500 or $600 per chair, I say 'You must be kidding.'"
After a Cal-OSHA investigation, Datagraphic was cited for not preventing repetitive stress injuries and now they are trying to figure out how to comply without breaking the bank. Instead of purchasing equipment that lets employees adjust the height of their monitors, the company places them on stacks of phone books.
To avoid unduly burdening small businesses, OSHA has included two important provisions. The first lets companies forego permanent ergonomics programs if they prove the immediate problems have been addressed. The second is a paperwork exemption.
But Sullivan says these measures still fall short. "You would have to be crazy not to document every ergonomic problem, in case there were an inspection. It's like a class in which the final grade depends only on the final exam, only there's no final exam."
The proposal would not take effect until 2001, but its eventual acceptance seems to be a fait accompli. The period for public comment on the proposal ended on February 1, but OSHA head Charles Jeffers is already planning to go on a goodwill tour later this year as part of the rollout of the new requirements.