to determine whether it is “reasonably likely”to be ergonomically hazardous. If it is, theemployer is to implement the kind of abate-ment measures described above—reduceassembly line speed, redesign equipment,and so on—until the hazard is gone or no fur-ther changes are feasible. The rule also pro-vides for an “incremental abatement process”under which an employer may make some job adjustments, see whether the employee isfeeling better, and, if not, continue makingadjustments until the employee’s conditionimproves. An astonishing provision of therule would require employers in some cir-cumstances to give employees up to sixmonths’ leave at 90 percent of their pay if their MSD symptoms (e.g., “tingling”) do notgo away. Or employees could demand to beplaced in light-duty jobs under the provision,in a manner similar to the practice under theAmericans with Disabilities Act but withfewer constraints.
The Problems of Ergonomics
Given the enormous burdens of ergonom-ic regulation, one would expect compellingscientific evidence to underlie OSHA’s pro-posal. But the “science” of ergonomics isnotoriously doubt-ridden and controversial.A first and most basic problem withergonomics is that leading physicians andmedical organizations dispute that RMIsactually occur. These physicians do not denythat people experience pain and discomfortin their backs, limbs, and other parts of themusculoskeletal system. On the contrary,musculoskeletal discomfort is ubiquitous.Fifty percent of Americans experience back pain every year, for instance.
What thephysicians dispute is that physical exertion isthe cause of musculoskeletal injury or illness.Carpal tunnel syndrome is an affliction of the hand and wrist that ergonomists claim iscaused by typing, for instance, yet theAmerican Society for Surgery of the Handopposes ergonomic regulation. It explains:“[T]he current medical literature does notprovide the information necessary to estab-lish a causal relationship between specificwork activities and the development of well-recognized disease entities.”
Similarly, theworld’s leading experts on back problemsdeny that job tasks are an important cause of back pain.
A second basic problem with ergonomicsis that, even accepting its premises, ergono-mists admit great difficulty diagnosing anRMI in any given instance. As noted, muscu-loskeletal discomfort is ubiquitous, andergonomists concede it has many causesother than work: it occurs (and dissipates)naturally and also is correlated with aging,obesity, and genetic predisposition, amongother things.
Ergonomists’ difficultiesidentifying supposed RMIs are exacerbatedby the fact that, whereas physicians typicallyrely on objective criteria to make diagnoses,ergonomists rely on subjective symptoms. Inone leading study by NIOSH, musculoskele-tal conditions were “diagnosed” by jerkingworkers’ hands and arms around and askingwhether it hurt a lot or just a little bit.
OSHA’s proposed rule treats “fatigue” as syn-onymous with injury.
Importantly, if an ergonomist fails todetermine the cause of a worker’s muscu-loskeletal disorder, then the disorder cannotbe classified as an RMI, since the term “repet-itive motion injury” indicates a conclusion asto cause.Ergonomists’ third great difficulty is iden-tifying effective ergonomic solutions. Asleading ergonomist Stover Snook puts it, “Itis difficult to try and prevent . . . back injurieswhen no one really knows what causesthem.”
NIOSH sensibly states that the firststep in determining whether a job isergonomically hazardous is comparing “jobdemands . . . to known human capacities.”Yet the agency confesses in the same docu-ment, “For most biomechanical factors, thelimits of human capacities have not beendefined.”
Scientists call this an inability toidentify “dose-response relationships”; ergono-mists do not know how much repetition, force,or weight is too much and therefore do notknow the level to which those things shouldbe reduced to avert supposed ergonomic ail-
Whereas physi-cians typicallyrely on objectivecriteria to makediagnoses,ergonomists relyon subjectivesymptoms.