ERGONOMICS PROPOSAL HIT ON SCIENTIFIC, COST BASIS

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Supermarket retailers, wholesalers and food manufacturers would be required by federal law to correct injury-causing workplace conditions, under proposed Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations announced last week.The ergonomics rule, released after almost eight years of wrangling between the federal government, industry and Congressional leaders, would require

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Supermarket retailers, wholesalers and food manufacturers would be required by federal law to correct injury-causing workplace conditions, under proposed Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations announced last week.

The ergonomics rule, released after almost eight years of wrangling between the federal government, industry and Congressional leaders, would require employers to provide work spaces and equipment to support the physical makeup of each individual doing his job, like those on assembly lines or at other jobs requiring repetitive motions or heavy lifting.

Supermarket-industry representatives last week sharply criticized the proposed regulations and warned the high costs would be detrimental to distributors.

The proposal, which appeared in Tuesday's Federal Register, would require employers to implement a basic ergonomics program. This would include assigning a staff or staff person to be responsible for ergonomics, providing information to employees on the risk of injuries and the importance of reporting problems early, and setting up a system for employees to report signs and symptoms.

Under the proposed rule, once a worker reported an ergonomic injury the employer would have to improve the conditions in that portion of the workplace.

Workers needing time off the job to recover from the injury could get 90% of pay and 100% of benefits to limit economic loss as a result of their injury.

About one-third of general-industry worksites -- 1.9 million sites -- would be affected and more than 27 million workers would be protected by the standard. According to the OSHA, each year 1.8 million U.S. workers experience work-related musculoskeletal disorders. About one-third of these injuries are serious enough to require time off work.

The OSHA estimated that employers who need to correct problems would spend an average of $150 a year per work station fixed. The total cost was estimated at $4.2 billion a year.

Industry officials have long denounced the regulations as overly prescriptive and costly. They supported a measure in Congress that would have delayed the release of the regulations until the National Academy of Sciences completed a study on whether on-the-job injuries can actually be caused by repetitive tasks or ill-fitting equipment.

The House passed the bill, known as the Workplace Preservation Act, but the Senate defeated it.

"The food-distribution industry does not need OSHA to tell it how to run its warehouses safely. Our members are spending millions to prevent injuries to their employees," said Kevin Burke, vice president of government relations for Food Distributors International, Falls Church, Va.

"They understand the cost, both in terms of compensation claims and productivity, and in human terms as well."

The OSHA's estimate that the new rules would cost about $4 billion a year is "absolutely ludicrous," Burke said.

A new FDI study, which represents 242 grocery-wholesale and food-service distribution companies, estimated that the proposal could cost its members alone $26 billion in the first year and $6 billion annually thereafter.

"In our industry, many companies will not be able to comply with OSHA's requirements," Burke said.

An official with the National Coalition on Ergonomics -- of which the Food Marketing Institute, the National Grocers Association and FDI are members -- said OSHA should wait until the National Academy of Sciences study is completed on the issue before acting.

"OSHA continues to ignore the evidence as it recklessly pursues an ergonomics standard," said Ed Gilroy, co-chair of the coalition. "Its proposed rule would cost employers billions of dollars while failing to assure the prevention of even one injury. Under the OSHA proposal, workplaces would now become laboratories for government experimentation."

The proposed rules would not become final until next year at the earliest. Comments on the proposal are due Feb. 1, 2000. Informal public hearings will begin Feb. 22, 2000.