It could well be that the empty desk across the office from you belongs to a travel agent who called in sick with an aching back or a similar complaint.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, every year 1.8 million workers -- presumably travel retailers among them -- suffer from musculoskeletal injuries tracing to ergonomic causes, and 600,000 people miss work because of them.

In an attempt to do something about the problem, OSHA has proposed federal rules designed to minimize such workplace hazards and protect the interests of those suffering from covered injuries.

While the rules would cost employers $4.2 billion a year to implement, OSHA said, companies would reap $9 billion a year in productivity gains.

But instead of seeing light at the end of the carpal tunnel, business groups such as the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Small Business United are seeing red, calling the rules restrictive, ambiguous and far more costly than OSHA anticipates.

For example, employers would have to provide affected employees requiring time off with free medical care for work-related injuries, including 90% of pay and 100% of benefits for up to six months -- substantially more than state and federal workman's compensation protections.

Critics of the proposals also argue that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between a covered workplace-related injury and, say, weekend "tennis elbow" or a backache caused by a lumpy mattress.

In any event, the Labor Department is accepting written comments on the proposals until Feb. 1, with public hearings scheduled in Washington Feb.22; in Portland, Ore., March 21, and Chicago, April 11.

We urge concerned members of the trade, owners and employees alike, to make their views known.

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