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WASHINGTON -- Bolstered by a new scientific study, federal labor officials intend to propose a federal ergonomics standard next summer for most businesses.

A congressionally commissioned National Academy of Sciences report that was released last week "puts to rest any question about whether OSHA's efforts to reduce musculoskeletal disorders are supported by sound science," U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman said in a statement. Her department oversees the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

However, several business groups, which generally oppose such a standard, are criticizing the NAS study as unfair. They complain that the report's authors did only a cursory study based on biased sources and could make only general findings.

The topic is an important one for both federal labor officials and employers.

"About one-third of all occupational injuries and illnesses stem from overexertion or repetitive motion, causing pain and disability for workers and costing our nation $20 billion in direct workers compensation costs alone," Ms. Herman said in her statement last week.

However, the controversy about whether a federal ergonomics standard will help solve those problems pits most business groups and conservative Republicans against labor officials and supporters.

That disagreement has spawned a lot of congressional debate in recent years (BI, Sept. 21; Feb. 23). A few years ago, Congress prohibited OSHA from even examining the issue. Although that ban has since been lifted, a congressional ban on promulgating an ergonomics standard remains in effect.

"In light of these strong findings by 66 of the nation's leading scientists, I hope Congress will reject any further attempts to delay the development of a protective standard," Ms. Herman said.

"OSHA is committed to developing a practical, flexible ergonomics standard to prevent these work-related injuries. We are on target to publish our proposal next summer," she added.

The NAS study, "Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders: A Review of the Evidence," reached four major conclusions:

* There is a higher incidence of reported pain, injury, lost time and disability among workers highly exposed to "physical loading" than for those employed in occupations with lower levels of exposure.

* There is "a strong biological plausibility" to the relationship between such disorders and the causative exposure factors in high-risk jobs.

* Research "clearly demonstrates" that specific interventions can reduce the reported rate of such disorders for workers performing high-risk tasks, though "no known single intervention is universally effective."

"Successful interventions require attention to individual, organizational and job characteristics, tailoring the corrective action to those characteristics," the study said.

* Research can help improve understanding of the problem and the resulting disorders.

However, the NAS study "deliberately avoided providing recommendations for action" for several reasons, including the fact that a worker's risk level "depends on the interaction of person and task, as does the effectiveness of options for reducing those risks."

From an NAS perspective, it is typical that the two-day "workshop" review -- which Congress specifically sought -- did not result in recommendations, said Anne Mavor, senior staff officer and study director. Congress allocated $490,000 for the study earlier this year and later refused business groups' request for a more thorough study.

The NAS study predictably has drawn criticism from employer groups and praise from labor organizations.

The National Assn. of Manufacturers considers the report "biased" and "inherently flawed" because the evidence considered did not reflect the experience of all manufacturers, especially small ones, a spokeswoman said.

The National Federation of Independent Business is very concerned because researchers heard from primarily pro-standard sources, including 95% of the participating scientists, said NFIB lobbyist Mary Leon.

"The National Coalition on Ergonomics urges lawmakers, employers and employees to support the call for more critical research" before "rushing forward with a regulation which could cost billions of dollars and, at the same time, fail to prevent even one injury," said Al Lundeen, its news director.

However, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney disagrees.

The NAS study "validates" the labor movement's efforts to secure an OSHA ergonomics standard, he said in a statement.

"It's time for the entire corporate community to follow the lead of responsible employers like Ford and 3M and implement workplace ergonomic control measures and support an OSHA ergonomics standard to protect all workers," he added>