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Does the Invisible Hand Have Carpal Tunnel Syndrome?

Unions clash with industry in the war over ergonomics guidelines

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"Ergonomics works, and smart business leaders recognize it," says Eric Frumin, health and safety director for the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. That should be great news for him, since he thinks that poorly designed workstations and repetitive tasks hobble millions of workers with chronic back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome and other "musculoskeletal disorders." He also thinks cost-conscious companies know it and have started to implement programs to keep workers on the job. Yet Frumin isn't happy. In fact, he is extremely angry. So are industry leaders, even though they seem to agree with him about the effectiveness of ergonomic improvements.

The clash over ergonomics proves that even when they agree, union and industry interests will find a way to bicker. Here's the score after an "Ergonomic Forum," held Monday at Virginia's George Mason University, one of three such forums sponsored by the Department of Labor. Unions argue that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration needs to mandate improvements in ergonomics because companies are too mean or stupid to figure out that doing so will save them money. As proof, they argue that companies are already making the improvements. For their part, industry groups argue that nobody knows how to solve the problem, and besides, they have already solved the problem.

The Ground Zero that they are fighting over is a gargantuan set of lame-duck regulations approved by the Clinton administration last November. After studying ergonomics for the better part of a decade, OSHA estimated that related injuries cost companies approximately $50 billion every year in lost time and worker compensation. The agency issued guidelines forcing companies to improve conditions and reduce injuries. Their tally indicated that for a mere $4.5 billion a year in regulatory costs, industry would save about $9 billion. Union leaders hailed the move as a major victory for the working man.

But in a January 24 op-ed in The Washington Times, one week after the rules took effect, President and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Tom J. Donahue called the rules "the most costly, burdensome, and far-reaching government regulation in U.S. history." He estimated that the annual cost would be closer to $100 billion. Industry leaders are particularly irate because no one can pinpoint whether repetitive-task injuries are strictly "work related." For instance, should a company have to treat a secretary with carpal-tunnel syndrome? It's not slipping on an I-beam. If that secretary knits or surfs the Internet by the hour at home, it is almost impossible to determine if the condition is work-related or not.

A howl of union protest went up when congressional Republicans axed the Clinton directive in March. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao attempted to calm the situation with this week's trio of "Ergonomic Forums" scattered across the country. Instead of finding common ground, however, the forum only added to the chaos.

Pat Cleary, a spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), told the panel that business leaders agree with unions on the fundamental issue: "Safety is good business." He noted that companies have seen a steady decline in ergonomics-related injuries over the past decade because they have voluntarily implemented their own solutions. But Cleary reversed course when it came to regulation. He said that no one knows what really causes repetitive-motion difficulties, much less how to resolve them. "We don't have the faintest clue," he said.

A panelist intervened: If companies don't have a clue how to solve the problem, how have they managed to solve the problem? Cleary said they have done so by going far beyond anything government should enforce: by revamping work stations and covering conditions that might have been incurred outside of work. In short, companies are doing exactly what the regulations would have them do—while arguing that the regulations would bust the bank.

Meanwhile, Frumin, the representative from UNITE, made a forceful call for government mandates just seconds after arguing that companies like UPS, Xerox and Levi Strauss have already made wide-ranging improvements on their own. Why mandate a process that is already underway? "Not all companies are as smart as UPS," Frumin told me after the meeting. But he also alluded to more sinister motives, arguing that some companies "would rather shoot employees" than give in to labor demands, even if those demands add to the bottom line. Frumin told the panel that companies know the changes make good business sense but lie to OSHA so the government won't get involved: "They are ideologically opposed to it."

For now, industry groups are calling for "more study." But while companies may be wise to oppose government standards, the trade groups should at least entertain the notion that running a jackhammer eight hours a day could have some negative ramifications. Voluntary ergonomics programs seem to indicate that some of them already have. "You don't find and keep workers by getting them injured or not offering the best benefits package," said NAM's Cleary. "The issue really becomes the role of government." What remains is to demonstrate that companies want to address such problems because they want to limit health costs. Thus the vaunted Invisible Hand would remain on the job, even when threatened by a musculoskeletal disorder.