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On-the-Job Injuries

Are workers paying a high price for productivity?
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But many business groups and lawmakers say the measures in OSHA's proposal will themselves require unwarranted expense. Citing insufficient scientific evidence, they argue the government should not regulate this issue until there's conclusive proof that workplace ergonomics actually cause (or can remedy) MSDs. "There is a lack of consensus in the scientific and medical communities on the causes of MSDs," says Jennifer Krese, director of employment policy for the National Association of Manufacturers. "Certainly not enough to justify a rule of this magnitude."

Numerous studies, including research reviewed in 1998 by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) involving 66 leading specialists in orthopedic surgery and occupational medicine, suggest ergonomics can be at least partly responsible for MSDs. "Physical work factors [such as lifting heavy boxes or equipment] can affect the loading [strain] that is experienced by a worker's tissues and structures," the NAS report said, adding, "Research clearly demonstrates that specific interventions can reduce the reported rate of musculoskeletal disorders for workers who perform high-risk tasks." A new NAS study on the subject, which will reexamine current medical findings and look closely at how these disorders can be prevented, is slated for completion in early 2001.

But most experts agree that these injuries rarely stem from ergonomics alone; a combination of contributing factors are often involved, including work schedules, pacing of activities, and time pressures on the job. And anyone looking to quantify how much any specific factor is to blame could find it a tough issue to study. "It's difficult to apply critical, scientific methods to determine that a particular action done repetitively over a number of hours will result in injury,'' says Russell E. Windsor, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon and expert in joint replacement surgery from the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. Unlike a workplace accident, the origins of repetitive injuries are "subtle," he adds. "So many different things can come into play. It's not like having a steel pipe hit you on the head. ''

Even so, OSHA insists enough evidence exists to move forward with ergonomics programs, pointing to numerous success stories where employers have already reduced workplace injuries by voluntarily making adjustments. That doesn't always mean buying new equipment; sometimes simply allowing more frequent breaks or varying a worker' s tasks is all that's required. When equipment does need modifying, it can be as minor as changing the height of a desk or keyboard. But it can also be as major as buying new lifting equipment or rebuilding an entire assembly line.

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