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Ergonomics, Nine Years Later

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December 1, 2009

Without a Federal Standard,
Companies Less Willing to Address Work-Related Issues

Almost nine years ago, one of the first actions taken by the Bush administration was the repeal of a federal ergonomics standard issued just months earlier by the outgoing Clinton administration. Left in place, the OSHA standard, some 10 years in the making, could have prevented tens of millions of work-related injuries. Among those most vulnerable are CWA members in customer service, manufacturing, health care and related occupations.

As a result, no effective federal protections exist for the estimated 3 million workers who sustain repetitive motion disorders, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, each year. Winning a new OSHA standard will be an uphill climb but CWA locals are continuing to work to improve conditions for workers at risk for this often devastating injury.

Since the early 1980s, when unions began to work on the epidemic of ergonomic injuries, CWA was successful in establishing ergonomic programs at several major companies, including Qwest, GE, AT&T, newspapers including the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Seattle Times and New York Times, and most recently, Kaleida Health Systems.

One very successful program, negotiated between CWA and Verizon, covered 4,000 members of CWA Local 1105, many of whom work in customer service and have suffered ergonomic injuries and illnesses.

That effort included funds for a train-the-trainer program to teach stewards how to identify and evaluate hazardous work situations and workers' injuries. Stewards had access to work stations to evaluate issues and recommend corrective action that could include a new keyboard or keyboard tray, foot rest, or ergonomic chair to help prevent ergonomic injury.

But when the Bush administration repealed the ergonomics standards and instructed compliance officers not to investigate ergonomic complaints, companies like Verizon cut back their support for the labor-management initiatives.

Maggie Sporbert, Local 1105 Safety Rep"It's as if the program never existed," said Local 1105 safety representative Maggie Sporbert. "Now, we usually have to file a grievance to get action for a worker with a injury or complaint," she said. "It can take six months or longer just to get a keyboard or chair. When workers return from carpal tunnel surgery, they usually return to the same bad situation because the company hasn't addressed the ergonomic design of their work area."

"It's sad. When our program was underway, we were well on the way to getting rid of the corporate mindset that an injury has to occur before taking action," said District 1Safety and Health Director Micki Siegel de Hernandez.

CWA continues to press ahead on its ergonomics program and is initiating a series of workshops to educate and train union stewards in identifying and evaluating ergonomic complaints, said CWA Safety and Health Director Dave LeGrande. CWA customer service members will be the first focus of this program, since customer service has a high incidence of ergonomic illnesses and injuries.

Recursos de Salud y Seguridad en Espanol

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For Spanish language fact sheets, materials and more resources about workplace safety and health, go to