NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Helping The Ergonomically Challenged

November 24, 1999

Businesses have incentives to reduce workers' injuries. After all, a worker injured on the job is less productive, requires more sick-time off, and saddles the firm with increases in compensation and health premiums.

However, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration has proposed new ergonomic standards aimed at preventing repetitive-stress injuries. The agency claims the new regulations will reduce injury rates by 26 percent and save $5 billion a year.

  • Some 1.6 million U.S. workers experience musculoskeletal disorders and 40 percent of those are serious enough to require time off.
  • But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of those disorders decreased an average of 5 percent a year between 1995 and 1997.

Although progress has been made, analysts say that the regulations, if finalized, would have three perverse effects:

  • Firms would have to invest time and resources to go through the motions of reducing risk, even if no risk is apparent.
  • Highly-compensated lawyers and ergonomists would descend on businesses selling advice as to how to comply with the new government rules.
  • The regs would give rise to yet another victim group -- the ergonomically challenged -- encouraged to take advantage of the perks provided by the regulations, such as time off to recover at 90 percent of pay or "light duty" at full pay.

The result would be an increase in litigation -- much like that generated by the Americans with Disabilities Act -- as employers and employees bicker over the kinds of office chairs or other modifications necessary to eliminate or "materially reduce" workplace hazards.

Source: Robert W. Hahn (American Enterprise Institute-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies), "Bad Economics, Not Good Ergonomics," Wall Street Journal, November 24, 1999.


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