WASHINGTON – Maryland business groups are worried that proposed federal rules to protect against “ergonomic” workplace injuries will open floodgates to more frequent and more onerous regulation.
“You’re into a whole new world with this,” said Barbara Wilkins, vice president of government relations at the Maryland Chamber of Commerce.
Wilkins said the rules unveiled by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration last week could result in a fundamental change in the way work-related injuries are perceived, since some of the targeted injuries, such as eye and back pain, are so common.
“Who among us would not be qualified?” she asked. “The magnitude of the rule is unfathomable for employers.”
But union officials in Maryland are ecstatic about the proposals.
“This has been a large issue for us,” said Jim Lowthers, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 400 in Landover. Lowthers said ergonomic injuries are common among cashiers and meatpackers in his union.
“You’re talking about people who aren’t able to pick up their child or throw a ball or work,” he said. “It’s a huge win for folks who want to work.”
Ergonomic injuries result from repetitive motion or overexertion, such as heavy lifting. OSHA’s rules would require employers who move injured workers to less-strenuous positions to pay those workers at their old pay and benefit levels for up to six months.
If the injuries are so severe that the employee cannot continue working, employers would be forced to give 90 percent of pay and 100 percent of benefits to the worker for up to six months.
According to OSHA, about one-third of all time given off by employers is due to ergonomic injuries, which it said account for more than 647,000 days of work lost each year.
But Wilkins questioned the scientific accuracy of OSHA’s ergonomics claims, saying more research needs to be done.
“It seems to me that they’ve certainly acted before they had the documented proof,” she said. She added that she was waiting to see a more detailed OSHA report.
Jim Goeden, Maryland state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said that if OSHA’s proposal is allowed to take effect next year, it would be only the beginning of a whole new series of regulations.
“You may be able to live with what they do now, but they keep raising the bar, again and again,” Goeden said.
OSHA will take public comments on the regulations until Feb. 1 and hold three public hearings before making a final ruling sometime next year.
And, though he expects the rules will continue to face stiff opposition, Lowthers is confident they will eventually be implemented.
“It’s always going to be something that people are going to try and derail,” he said. “But the fact that the business community has already put 150 percent effort into fighting it this far means it is a huge step forward.”