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WASHINGTON-A new government study contends there is a link between workplace conditions and certain repetitive stress injuries.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration contends that the study supports its call for a national ergonomics standard to reduce such injuries, though critics of such a standard dispute that conclusion.
The Cincinnati-based National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health last week released the study, which consists of a compendium of previously published scientific studies rather than new research.
After noting that the relationship between musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs, "and work-related factors remains the subject of considerable debate," Dr. Linda Rostenstock, NIOSH's director, wrote, "on the basis of our review of the literature, NIOSH concludes that a large body of credible epidemiological research exists that shows a consistent relationship between MSDs and certain physical factors, especially at higher exposure levels."
After reviewing the various studies, some of which date back to the 1940s, NIOSH concluded that repetitive stress injuries tend to be caused by a combination of job-related factors, including vibrations or posture, rather than a single factor. The report also notes that "all of these disorders can be caused by non-work exposures."
The report shows the need for action now on an ergonomic standard to mitigate repetitive stress injuries, said Greg Watchman, acting head of OSHA in Washington. Mr. Watchman said the report provides "compelling evidence" of the linkage between workplace conditions and repetitive stress injuries and said OSHA still intends to issue a standard, though probably not until next year at the earliest.
OSHA has been under fire from business groups and some members of Congress for attempting to issue such a standard in the absence of irrefutable evidence that it is needed.
Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, has prepared legislation to block the imposition of any ergonomics standard until the National Academy of Sciences issues a report on the matter.
The AFL-CIO, which supports an ergonomics standard, welcomed the new report.
"I think it demonstrates the point that we've been making all along that repetitive strain injury is absolutely linked to and caused by workplace factors," said Keith Mestrich, occupational safety and health specialist with the AFL-CIO in Washington. But he added: "Is it going to quell the opposition? I doubt it."
Mr. Mestrich said he thinks the NIOSH study removes the need for further study before OSHA introduces a standard. "I'm not sure what a study the NAS would do now, whether that's really needed," he said.
A spokeswoman for Rep. Bonilla said he will continue to seek an NAS study, a position that sits well with business groups that oppose OSHA imposing an ergonomics standard.
"I see no reason why the National Academy of Sciences should not have an opportunity to review the data. I would rather have two organizations separate and distinct saying the same thing before going ahead with a standard," said Lance Ewing, chair of the Risk & Insurance Management Society's Inc.'s health and safety committee and loss control administrator for the Philadelphia School District.
Mr. Ewing added that RIMS believes companies should address ergonomic problems on their own, and that those that haven't should do so in order to be "one step ahead" of OSHA regulation.
"The problem with the NIOSH study is that it is not thorough and not complete. It overlooks a lot of important studies," said Peter Eide, manager-labor law policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington. Any standard "should be delayed pending a more thorough review of the literature by the NAS. Pending that, we think it's premature for OSHA or anyone else to be issuing any ergonomic standards," he said.
"Our initial reaction is that we want to go ahead and review some of the science ourselves," said David M. Farmer, senior vp-federal affairs in the Washington office of the Alliance of American Insurers.
"At first blush, we're highly skeptical of some of the conclusions in the report. It is, we believe, of paramount importance that any rule or standard be based on absolutely sound science, because an improperly issued ergonomic standard could cost American employers millions and perhaps billions of dollars over time," he said.
He said the Alliance is "absolutely" in favor of conducting an NAS ergonomic study before anything more is done regarding an OSHA standard.
Free copies of "Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs) and Workplace Factors: A Critical Review of Epidemiologic Evidence for Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders of the Neck, Upper Extremity, and Low Back" are available from NIOSH at 800-356-4674. The report also can be accessed on the Internet at http://www.cdc.gov/niosh.