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Fighting For
An Ergonomics Standard

UE News, December 2000

By David Kotelchuck



UPDATE: The new OSHA ergonomics standard took effect on January 16, 2001. However, business has succeeded in having the standard killed by Congress; President Bush put the final nail in the coffin by signing the repeal under the never-before used (and very anti-democratic) Congressional Review Act on March 20, 2001 (for details see: UE News - Bush, Congress to Injured Workers: Suffer!). On this page, then are some of the protections workers would have had if not for greed of corporate America.

Well, folks, the fat’s on the fire when it comes to the new OSHA Ergonomics Standard. As you
remember from the last Health & Safety column in the UE NEWS, the Clinton Administration announced a new Ergonomics Standard in November, and the Republicans in Congress have so far held up the entire $350 billion human services part of the U.S. federal budget unless Clinton backs off. So far Clinton hasn’t, and the warring parties (yes, they’re warring politically) are getting ready for their next moves to protect/destroy this new standard. Whether the standard remains on the books will eventually depend on us in the union movement and our friends and allies.

Let’s look critically at the final version of the new standard, especially at the last-minute changes — good and bad — and what may happen to OSHA and the standard as soon as Congress reconvenes. First, some of the changes in the standard:

  • In the final version of the Ergonomics Standard, all of general industry is covered, no industry is singled out for special treatment (for example, the meatpacking industry was covered by special rules in the original draft version of the standard.)

  • How does an industry or company or plant get covered under the new standard? Some employee has to suffer a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD), such as a back injury or a case of carpal tunnel syndrome, and report it. If the injury arises from a job-related activity which is specified in the standard, then the employer must initiate an ergonomics program in that workplace.

That means the burden of triggering the program falls on the shoulders of the MSD victims. This is an invitation to company pressure and threats against workers who are injured on the job. In union shops, injured workers’ rights can be protected through our contracts. In unorganized shops, this protection just isn’t there.

What job-related activities cause MSDs? Here the new standard is quite specific and very good — better, even, than the standard originally proposed:



Awkward Posture

  • Repeatedly raising your hands above your head or your elbows above your shoulders for more than 2 hours per day
  • Kneeling or squatting for more than 2 hours per day

Contact Stress

  • Using your hand or knee as a hammer more than 10 times per hour for more than two hours each day


  • Using tools with high vibration levels (such as jackhammers or chipping hammers) for more than 30 minutes total each day


  • Repeating the same few motions every few seconds for more than two consecutive hours in a workday
  • Using a keyboard and/or mouse in a steady manner for more than 4 hours total in a workday


  • Lifting more than 75 pounds load at any time during the workday
  • Lifting 55 pounds load more than 10 times per day
  • Lifting more than 25 pounds from below the knees, above the shoulders or at arm’s length more than 25 times per day

Before this standard, OSHA had no limits on how much weight a worker could lift per day. Now if workers are asked to lift 75 pounds or more anytime, and someone suffers a back injury, then the employer must start an ergonomics program. (This means, of course, that one person will have to suffer a back injury first before anything happens — this is what is wrong with the standard — but at least we don’t have to go on under the same working conditions and have others get injured.) Also, previously an office worker could be assigned to work 8 hours a day using a keyboard and mouse, and it would be legal. Under this standard, four hours is the maximum time one can be assigned this work, again after someone first develops a case of carpal tunnel syndrome. These standards for how much repetitive and forceful work is too much can serve as good guidelines for work practices in UE shops, whatever the fate of the new standard.


Congressional Republicans, with support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other industry organizations, are preparing to attack and kill the new standard when Congress reconvenes. President-elect Bush will almost certainly support efforts to kill the standard. He and Congressional Republicans may try one of several moves:

  1. Again try to prohibit enforcement of the standard by attaching a one-year amendment to the U.S. Budget forbidding OSHA from enforcing it.

  2. Cut the budget for OSHA so that it doesn’t have enough money to carry out any enforcement activities.

  3. Pass a bill in both Houses of Congress, which must then be signed by the President, repealing the OSHA Ergonomics Standard. This has never been done before in OSHA’s 30-year history, but this could be a first.

Whatever Congress tries to do to stop this standard will deprive workers of their rights to a safe and healthy job. And whatever the faults of this particular standard — and they are many — if Congress gets away with repealing the standard or monkeying with OSHA’s budget to stop a standard, this will only whet the appetite of the tiger. Anti-union Congresspeople will try this route again to attack workers and try to deprive workers of their rights. We need to work with others in the labor movement to fight the attacks against us. It’s time to mobilize and lobby our Congressional Representatives and Senators now, first to pass this year’s human services budget with no anti-OSHA amendments, and then to fight any attacks on the Ergonomics Standard during the next session of Congress (in 2001).

The union movement has spent 10 years fighting for a new Ergonomics Standard, and now we’ve got one. Let’s give it a chance to work.

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