Ergonomic Inaction: Congress Puts OSHAs Ergonomics Standard on Hold


January 1999

Vernon Mogensen


While Congress consumes itself with the impeachment and trial of the president, many Americans are becoming increasingly frustrated as the nation's policy problems go unaddressed. Of special interest is the tremendous growth of repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) among office workers using video display terminals (VDTs). RSIs affect millions of workers and cost the economy an estimated $100 billion a year in workers compensation claims and lost work time.  Carpal tunnel syndrome, a type of RSI, is so debilitating that it results in more lost workdays (a median of 30 days per case) than any other occupational illness.  The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) calls RSIs "the most important occupational safety and health problem in the United States today."

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the reported incidence of RSIs have skyrocketed from only 18 percent of all occupational illnesses reported in 1981 to 66 percent today. But even this dramatic growth underestimates the scope of the problem. Many cases of RSIs go unreported as workers try to "work through the pain" in order to keep their jobs, others are not reported by employers, and BLS data does not include self-employed workers or federal, state, and local government employees. The BLS put the RSI rate at 332,000 in 1994, but the American Public Health Association estimates that more than 775,000 workers suffered from RSIs in 1995. While RSIs afflict many types of workers doing repetitive tasks from postal workers using zip code sorters to automobile assembly line workers, the biggest variable during this time span has been the introduction and widespread use of VDTs.  Most VDT workers are women and the federal government has long conducted a policy of not so benign neglect towards women and office workers' health problems. The federal government' s "Invisible Woman" policy is reflected in the fact that even in this day and age of the computer, the BLS does not collect data on the incidence of RSIs among the predominately female VDT workers. Nevertheless, OSHA acknowledges that much of the increase in 1981 is due to the proliferation of VDTs in the workplace.

With more than half of America's workforce using computers, this has become an increasingly important and politicized story. Organized labor has been pushing for regulation of the growing RSI problem since the early 1980s. In 1994, OSHA proposed ergonomic standard would have required employers to reengineer the work process to limit the amount of time workers could spend at five repetitive tasks considered RSI risk factors: doing the same motion or motion pattern; use of vibrating or impact tools; forceful hand exertions; unassisted frequent or heavy lifting; and working in fixed or awkward postures. But OSHAs work received little support from the Clinton administration, even before the President's legal problems overwhelmed the White House's policy agenda. However, the Republican controlled Congress has taken a more proactive stance in its opposition to any effort to regulate the RSI problem. While VDT workers' hands become crippled, congressional Republicans, like majority whip Tom Delay (R-Texas), have put their faith in the invisible hand of the free market. When the Republicans took power in Congress in 1995 for the first time in forty years, Delay, whose Houston-based pest control company was fined by OSHA, put the safety agency's proposed ergonomics standard at the top of his party's regulatory hit list. In the hopes of saving some semblance of an ergonomics standard, OSHA voluntarily narrowed the scope of its proposal to apply only to workplaces where two workers were diagnosed with the same type of RSIs within a year of each other (the original proposal would have applied to a broader range of workplaces).  But Delay, whose nickname in business circles is "Mr. Dereg," was not to be placated; OSHA must be punished for "flouting the will of this Congress," he said.  House colleague Cass Ballenger (R- North Carolina) seconded Delay's sentiments and displayed his ignorance of the issue when he proclaimed: "no one ever died from ergonomics." Punishment came in the form of Congress prohibiting OSHA from conducting research on the RSI standard, and cutting its already meager budget by close to $20 million to preclude any possibility of the safety agency's interfering with the movement of the invisible hand. However, supporters of the ergonomic standard won a surprising victory in 1996 with help from an unexpected source.  Thirty-four moderate House Republicans committed the heresy of voting with the Democratic minority to permit OSHA to resume work on its proposed ergonomic standard. They were emboldened to cross the aisle by virtue of the fact that they held unsafe seats in an election year, and by House Speaker's Newt Gingrich's declining popularity in the wake of his ethics violations and his efforts to shutdown the government. But don't expect Congress to permit OSHA to promulgate its ergonomics standard just yet; the National Association of Manufacturers formed the National Coalition of Ergonomics, an imposing alliance of over 300 corporations and trade associations,  just to oppose any such eventuality.

The fight to have the ergonomics standard cover VDT workers (at present it focuses on manufacturing, construction and assembly line workers) represents the battle within the battle. This battle to include protections for VDT workers has been going on since OSHA first acceded to organized labor's calls for an ergonomics standard in 1990. The Republicans' laissez faire approach dovetails nicely with computer manufacturers, represented by the Computer and Business Equipment Manufacturers Association and a host of Fortune 500 corporations that rely heavily on VDTs. Since organized labor and women's groups like 9 to 5: The National Association of Working Women first proposed regulations in the early 1980s, corporate interests have pursued a strategy of redefining the VDT health and safety crisis (which, of course also includes vision, stress, reproductive and other health problems)  as a little more than an employee "comfort" problem that government bureaucrats best leave to employers to deal with on a voluntary basis. Their strategy has been successful in large part because it resonates so strongly with the individualist, "get-the government-off my back," philosophy that has been prevalent in American society since the 1980s.

Computer manufacturers received a major assist in opposing VDT regulation from the corporately owned major print and electronic media. The newspaper industry was one of the first industries to convert to VDT use, and the American Newspaper Publishers Association, which fought some intense battles with the Newspaper Guild during the 1970s, encouraged its members to downplay VDT stories. Their were cases of outright censorship of VDT stories, but more commonly the major media just ignored it altogether. This latter strategy, much more subtle and successful than censorship, grew to such proportions that it prompted the media watchdog publication, The Columbia Journalism Review to publish an article entitled: "VDTs: The Overlooked Story Right in the Newsroom." This approach gave corporate interests the advantage of defining what the VDT debate was about and gave them the political momentum when organized labor called for regulation. Federal and state government officials have been reluctant to regulate information industries that are seen as the engines of growth (i.e., a major source of new jobs and tax revenue) in the postindustrial economy.

The labor movement has been in a state of steady decline, losing its predominantly male, blue collar membership as its base in manufacturing shrank since the 1950s. Labor unions, which long ignored the plight of women workers, were slow to organize the predominantly female office workforce. The majority of VDT workers are women in low-paying, nonunionized, dead-end jobs- increasing numbers are minorities. The prospects for safe and healthful workplaces for those who work with VDTs in unorganized settings depends largely on the labor movement's ability and willingness to relate to the problems facing this postindustrial workforce.

Congress should permit OSHA to promulgate its ergonomics standard, and allow it to include provisions to protect VDT workers. But in order for safety and health regulations to be effective, workers must be included in the drafting process. Not only do they have first hand experience with the problems that many so-called "experts" lack, but studies show that workers are more likely to follow regulations that they had a hand in crafting. Finally, workers- especially office workers- are forced to check many of their democratic rights at the door when they enter the workplace. Worker participation is a means of promoting both safety and health rights and the practice of participatory democracy.

About the Author:
Vernon Mogensen has written extensively on the public policy implications of RSIs and other health and safety issues. He is the author of Office Politics: Computers, Labor, and the Fight for Safety and Health (Rutgers University Press) 800-446-9323, and teaches American politics at Kingsborough Community College, CUNY, 2001 Oriental Blvd., Brooklyn, NY, 11235.

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Last Updated: 01/24/99