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CINCINNATI-The jury is still out over the economic value of ergonomics.

Although preliminary results from an Occupational Health & Safety Administration study indicate that the benefits of a federal ergonomics regulation would greatly exceed the costs, that may not be the case for all industries, some researchers say.

For example, the costs of implementing a federal ergonomics regulation would create significant financial hardship for the trucking industry, according to Mark P. Berkman, vp of San Francisco-based National Economic Research Associates Inc.

Mr. Berkman conducted a cost-benefit analysis of a proposed OSHA ergonomics regulation for the American Trucking Assn.

But most cost-benefit analyses of ergonomics programs-such as that conducted for the ATA-fail to take into account non-occupational injury costs, other experts point out.

Often overlooked are such employer costs as replacement worker training, downtime and health benefits, because not all work-related injuries are treated in the workers compensation system, pointed out David C. Alexander, president of Auburn Engineers Inc., an occupational ergonomics consulting firm based in Auburn, Ala.

As a result, it's easy for some research to conclude that it would cost more to implement a nationwide ergonomics standard than it would save, he said.

"There's a misperception that ergonomics is expensive," Mr. Alexander observed. "If you wait until after the injury rate is high, it will be. But if you invest in ergonomics early, it will cost a lot less."

Both experts made their remarks during a session on the "Economics of Ergonomics" held during the June 17-20 Managing Ergonomics in the 1990s conference in Cincinnati co-sponsored by the Alexandria, Va.-based Center for Office Technology and the American Automobile Manufacturers Assn.

To illustrate the kind of return on investment an effective ergonomics program can have, another conference speaker shared a client's experience.

Dan MacLeod, director of ergonomics for Clayton Environmental Consultants in Edison, N.J., explained that some of the workers at Crane & Co. Inc. were experiencing hand problems due to threading and tying into bows the tiny ribbons on the corners of wedding invitations.

After discussing the problem with the workers at the paper company's Dalton, Mass.-based headquarters, one of them "invented" a rudimentary tying device using a manila folder, a paper clip and some tape.

While not all ergonomics solutions are that simple, in many cases all it really takes is a little "Yankee ingenuity," Mr. MacLeod said.

Ergonomics is simply "practical, low-tech common sense," he said.

After spending about $2.5 million on ergonomics solutions, Crane saved $3.5 million in costs related to treating musculoskeletal injuries over a five-year period.

"That's a 40% return," Mr. MacLeod estimated. "And many of those costs are fixed costs, so the return will grow even more over time."

By contrast, Mr. Berkman said his analysis of the costs of implementing an ergonomics standard will cost the U.S. trucking industry as much as $6 billion.

That cost could put interstate commerce at a standstill, he suggested, because many trucking firms are mom-and-pop operations that can't afford the cost of many ergonomic solutions, many of which have yet to be proved.

He suggested more research should be done before a national regulation is designed and implemented.

"A federal standard applied across all industries at the same level wouldn't make economic sense," Mr. Berkman said.