Legislative Issues: Ergonomics - OSHA Inflicts Pain

What has a 1,000-page preamble and 300 pages of regulations in fine print? No, it’s not the bureaucracy from Mars—it’s the recently proposed workplace rules on ergonomics published by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Ergonomics is a term that encompasses the science of fitting a particular job or task to a worker to prevent work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). MSDs are injuries that occur to muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage and the spine. Among the types of MSD injuries that may result from workplace activity are low-back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, sciatica and herniated spinal disc. Activities such as repetitive motions, lifting, awkward postures and overexertion of muscles may lead to MSD disorders. The OSHA ergonomics regulations are intended to help prevent possible MSD injuries.

Proposed Mandates

The proposed OSHA ergonomics regulations would apply to two types of employment situations—both are found in the ceramic industry.

Under the first category, all companies that have workers who perform manual manufacturing jobs or companies that have workers who perform lifting would be mandated to have in place a program to identify possible ergonomic problems and train employees on how to deal with them.

Under the second category, if an employee reports an ergonomic injury (even if it is not related to manual manufacturing operations or lifting), the employer would have to examine and improve the ergonomic conditions in that portion of the workplace where the employee performs his or her tasks. This means even non-manufacturing and non-warehousing operations could be covered by the ergonomics regulations if only one employee was diagnosed by a health care professional as having an ergonomic injury.

Accordingly, one report of lower back pain would mean that the employer would have to survey the workplace and adjust any situations that might contribute to that or other types of ergonomic problems.

In the second category, an employer may avoid a full-scale compliance requirement by utilizing a “Quick-Fix” alternative. Basically, under the “Quick-Fix” approach, if a company can correct the hazard that caused the ergonomic injury within 90 days—and be certain that it will not reoccur—the company will not be obligated to impose a full scale ergonomics compliance program.

One of the most controversial requirements in the proposed rules would mandate that employees deemed by a physician to be unable to resume work due to an MSD injury would receive 90% of their pay and 100% of their benefits for up to six months. An employee would have to be given full pay and benefits if he or she were put on “light” duty.

Managing Compliance Programs

When an ergonomics compliance program is mandated, such as for manufacturing and lifting operations, the proposed rules require that the employer involve employees in establishing, implementing and evaluating the program. Employees would have to be provided with information so workers know what ergonomic injuries are and how to report them.

In developing an ergonomics compliance program, an employer would have to perform a job hazard analysis. This would include either employee interviews or surveys and an evaluation of job factors likely to cause MSD injuries.

When “problem” tasks have been identified, employers would be required to implement feasible control measures to reduce the hazards. The proposal indicates that engineering type modifications (such as redesigning equipment and workstations) are preferred over administrative controls (such as job rotations). Protective equipment for workers could be used if other control methods are not feasible.

Costs of Compliance

Estimates pertaining to the cost of compliance are already a battleground. OSHA estimates it will cost U.S. businesses about $4.1 billion a year to comply. Business groups put the cost at a much higher figure. For instance, a food service distribution trade group estimates it will cost its members $26 billion the first year and $6 billion a year thereafter. A trucking trade group puts the cost of compliance for motor carriers at $6.5 billion a year.

A number of business groups have stated that OSHA should not proceed until after a National Science Foundation study on ergonomics is completed, which will be in about a year. Various groups have accused OSHA of issuing the proposed standard with little scientific research to support it.

OSHA is holding hearings concerning the proposal. The first hearing was held in February in Washington, D.C. Additional hearings will be in Portland, Ore., March 21, and in Chicago, April 11. Anyone wishing to testify at or attend a public hearing should contact Veneta Chatman at (202) 693-2119, fax (202) 693-1634.


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