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Bush Administration Revokes Occupational Safety and Health Administration.s Ergonomic Rules

April 17, 2001

On March 20, 2001, President George W. Bush signed a bill repealing the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration's ("OSHA") ergonomic rules. This action by the President followed votes by both houses of Congress in favor of the repeal. With the President's signature, the rules became void.

OSHA's Ergonomic Rules and Their Impact on Employers

OSHA's ergonomic rules, which dictated how businesses should respond to reports of repetitive stress injuries by employees, went into effect on January 16, 2001; covered employers had until October 14, 2001 to comply. The rules applied to all employers except (i) those in the railroad industry, and (ii) those covered by OSHA's construction, maritime and agricultural standards. See OSHA Issues Final Ergonomics Rule (November 2000).

The rules required employers to design and implement ergonomic programs for their workers, analyze potentially problematic jobs for ergonomic risk factors, conduct extensive training, and compensate workers in an amount not less than 90% of their wages and benefits for time off due to repetitive stress injuries.

OSHA estimated the cost of implementing the rules at $4.5 billion annually. However, a study by the Employment Policy Foundation concluded that employers would have spent billions more -- approximately $129.5 billion -- during the first year of compliance alone.

What Employers Should Do Now

As a result of the repeal, there are currently no federal rules specifically addressing ergonomics issues. However, employers should be aware that the Secretary of Labor, Elaine Chao, "intends to pursue a comprehensive approach to ergonomics which may include new rulemaking addressing the concerns levied against [the repealed rules]." Moreover, the new head of OSHA may decide to revisit the issue and devise new rules that would pass muster with Congress and the President.

OSHA proclaimed that the rules were necessary for the following reasons:

Therefore, given current concerns regarding repetitive stress injuries on the job, employers can expect the rules to resurface in a new form at some point in the not-too-distant future.

In the meantime, employers must still comply with state and federal laws regarding workplace safety, and would be well-advised to take the necessary steps to avoid and address repetitive stress injuries and reduce worker's compensation claims. Notwithstanding the repeal of the OSHA standards, employers should be proactive in seeking to create an ergonomically safe environment for every employee.