February 25, 2000

The Occupational Safety And Health Administration's Proposed Ergonomics Program Standard

  • Susan Dudley

    Director, George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center
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29 CFR 1910 -- Ergonomics Program; Proposed Rule

Stated Purpose:

"[T]o address the significant risk of work-related musculo-skeletal disorders (MSDs) confronting employees in various jobs in general industry workplaces."

Summary of RSP Comment:

Recognizing that work-related musculo-skeletal disorders (MSDs) impose real costs on employers and employees, OSHA proposes to mandate the establishment of ergonomics programs to eliminate or control MSD hazards. However, OSHA's approach fails to address the fundamental cause of MSDs in the workplace -- lack of information on viable, cost-effective solutions. OSHA has offered no evidence that employers and employees do not have adequate incentives to provide the optimal level of workplace protection against MSD hazards. On the contrary, OSHA provides evidence that (1) MSDs impose significant costs on employers (which should offer ample incentives to reduce their occurrence), (2) employers are, in fact, developing programs and other initiatives to reduce MSDs, and (3) MSDs are declining.

OSHA's estimate that its proposed program rule will offer net social benefits of $4.9 billion per year is based on faulty analysis and assumptions, and significantly overstates the likely benefits of the proposal. Our sensitivity analysis suggests that the rule would produce annualized benefits ranging from $0 to $2.3 billion, and that annualized costs, conservatively estimated, could range from $3.0 billion to $11.0 billion. Even these ranges are likely to overstate benefits and understate costs because they rely on OSHA's framework and assumptions and may understate the effect of the job control and work restriction provisions, in particular. Our conservative best (or most likely) estimate is that the rule will impose annualized net costs (over and above benefits) of $5.8 billion.

Not only are OSHA's mandates costly and unnecessary, given private incentives, but the procedural requirements and hierarchy of control measures are likely to discourage individual responsibility and hinder innovation into creative solutions. Rather than mandating that all workplaces adopt a framework that is not yet demonstrated, OSHA could do more to reduce the risk of MSDs by facilitating continued research and disseminating the results of that research and experience to employers.