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Ergonomics Ban

UE News, August 1996

IN A SURPRISE ACTION, the U.S. House of Representatives voted July 11 to eliminate the ban on OSHA issuing an ergonomics standard or proposing ergonomics guidelines. An ergonomics standard is designed to protect workers from developing carpal tunnel syndrome, back injuries and other neuromuscular disorders.

The House vote was close -- 216-205 -- with 35 Republicans joining 181 Democrats to pass the bill. This change will almost certainly be upheld by the Senate, according to Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO director of safety and health, as well as other Congressional observers. This will end one of the most shameful actions of the Gingrich-led 104th Congress.

The ban was adopted after the 1994 Congressional elections, when House members attached the bill as an amendment to the federal budget. This has been a favorite Republican tactic both in Congress and state legislatures.

Because it is part of a budget bill, which affects many people's lives and must be voted on quickly, there is no time to hold legislative hearings about the issue. So labor and others don't have a chance to present information about the problem, attack anti-worker provisions and organize against the bill.

Carpal tunnel and other repetitive motion disorders are the most rapidly increasing occupational illnesses in the U.S. Back in the early 1980s, skin diseases accounted for most workplace illnesses, with few if any repetitive motion disorders reported. By 1994, one-third of a million repetitive motion illnesses were reported nationwide, two-thirds of all reported occupational illnesses. Skin disorders today represented only 14 percent of all reported illnesses.

What's more, the increased rate of repetitive strain illnesses shows no sign of slowing down. The number of these illnesses increased by 10 percent from 1993 to 1994, leaving pain and shattered lives in their wake.


Carpal tunnel syndrome is a painful condition of the wrists and hands in which the soft tissue of the wrists becomes inflamed and swollen, putting painful pressure on the median nerve there. Despite big business claims to the contrary, we know what conditions cause repetitive strain disorders:

  • Constantly repeated hand and wrist motions

  • Bent or awkward hand or wrist positions, such as wringing motions, inserting small screws in boards or metal frames, and the looping of wires with pliers

  • Excess pressure on fingers and/or the palms of the hands. This can come from hitting computer keyboards too hard, pinching or twisting motions by the fingers, or pressing the palms of the hand too hard against tools.

First signs of carpal tunnel syndrome are numbness or tingling, especially in the first two fingers of the hand next to the thumb. These often occur at night, after work, and may not at first appear work-related. Eventually this tingling and numbness turns to almost constant pain whenever the hands and fingers are used on the job.

At the first signs of trouble, try to slow down your pace of work, and insist upon and take more frequent rest periods. See a physician, especially one trained in occupational medicine.

Usually, in the early stages of the disease, the best treatment is plenty of rest. The problem is that it takes a long time for the swelling to go down, often many weeks and even months. Without a full paycheck, or without any at all after a while, people often try to go back to work too soon and re-injure the nerve.

Splints around the wrists are often helpful in reducing wrist motion, but they are not a cure-all, and many people find they don't help very much. Physical therapy is often helpful as well, at all stages of the disease.

And don't be too quick to accept a doctor's recommendation of surgery. The operation involves cutting the ligaments of the injured wrist to relieve the pressure on the nerve. But this is of little value if the conditions which caused the problem in the first place are not remedied. Without changes in working conditions, the swelling will simply resume on the undersides of the wrist and the pain may return.

The best and most important remedy for carpal tunnel syndrome and other related disorders is to re-engineer the job tasks which caused the problems. To be effective, this process has to include plenty of worker input. Outside professionals, especially those brought in by your employers and beholden to them, simply don't know well enough what you do and how you do it to design really effective work changes. This is a task in which the union health and safety committee has an important role to play.

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