The Latest Big Blunder by OSHA

Big government, trying to devise a new weapon in its fight against on-the-job injuries, may, instead, have shot itself in the foot and shot American factory workers, and their employers, squarely through the heart.

That's the only conclusion that can be drawn from a recent rule-making action out of Washington that could seriously derail a cabinet industry which, until now, has been going gangbusters, along with the rest of the kitchen and bath industry.

The short-sighted and potentially damaging action emanates surprise, surprise from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is demonstrating that it's picking up in the new millennium precisely where it left off last century: By issuing a guideline that's vague, based on inconclusive data, and demonstrates that OSHA often lacks both an understanding of, and a regard for, the people and businesses that are impacted by its actions.

OSHA's proposed new regulation, in this case, is targeted at governing ergonomics in the workplace, and is aimed primarily at factory workers involved in materials handling and production. Included are the kitchen and bath industry's major cabinet manufacturing facilities, as well as the thousands of local cabinet shops that operate across the country.

Under the proposed regulation, one musculoskeletal disorder reported by an employee at such a facility would require a company to establish a comprehensive ergonomics program that may force the firm to undergo a massive redesign of its workplace layout costing businesses dearly in the process.

Moreover, workers who experience covered musculoskeletal disorders and are forced to miss work, would be entitled to up to six months of leave at 90% pay and 100% of benefits far more than what's permitted under existing workmen's comp laws.

The burden of this proposed regulation, argues the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association and other critics, will inevitably fall most heavily on smaller manufacturers who typically have the least flexibility in purchasing new equipment and making extensive factory changes (see story, Page 24).The proposed new OSHA code, those same critics charge, also contains language that's so vague that a company may not even understand exactly how to comply with the guideline.

And as if that's not enough, critics say, OSHA's proposed ergonomics regulation flies in the face of Congress, which last year prohibited the agency from issuing any such rule until a thorough, taxpayer-funded study of the scientific evidence regarding musculoskeletal disorders had been completed.

The fact that that has yet to happen didn't stop OSHA, of course, from moving ahead on the matter.

Some things, it's obvious, just never change.

Sad to say, the ergonomics fiasco may actually be only the first of many misguided shots to be fired by OSHA as the new century unfolds.

According to some OSHA experts, the agency facing budget cuts, the retirement of many experienced inspectors and disquieting links to organized labor will be flexing its muscles more than ever in the coming years, simply in an effort to justify its existence. That can only mean that OSHA will be more visible and more problematic than ever to business owners.

OSHA has been around for 30 years, and while the agency says its existence has led to a major decline in workplace injuries, a legion of critics feels otherwise. With actions like the proposed new ergonomics code, those critics no doubt have more fuel.

OSHA with a boot in the backside from Congress should go back to the drawing board on the ergonomics issue, and devise a regulation that shows it has the capacity to take off its blindfold and earplugs when attempting to act in the best interests of both American workers and their employers.

If OSHA had a real concern for the workers it's purporting to protect, the last thing it would be doing is to once again try to bite the very hands whose job it is to feed those employees.