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Ergonomics: Still an Issue

Mon, 07/09/2001 - 6:29am
Nancy Syverson, Managing Editor

Despite President Bush's repeal of the Clinton administration's ergonomics standard, companies remain responsible for providing a safe and healthy workplace. Here's why.

Each year, 1.8 million Americans suffer on-the-job repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) like carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, nerve damage and back pain. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 582,300 MSDs that resulted in employees missing time from work in 1999. In 1998, 592,500 injuries were reported, a 25% decline from the more than 763,000 musculoskeletal injuries reported in 1993. Despite the decline, these injuries still account for more than one-third of all lost workday injuries and illnesses in the U.S. MSDs carry an estimated $9 billion price tag for the cost of workers compensation, insurance and productivity loss.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) estimated that by implementing an ergonomics standard, more than 100 million workers would learn about the importance of ergonomics by October 2001, and that 4.6 million injuries would be prevented in the first 10 years. It took 10 years, but in November 1999, in the last days of the Clinton administration, an ergonomics standard - the Ergonomics Program; Final Rule - was passed. It took effect the following January. The standard required that every company in every state implement an ergonomics-management program by January 2002.

The hard-won victory was short-lived. On March 7, 2001, the newly elected Republican majority rescinded the ergonomics standard. A White House statement said that the OSHA-sponsored regulations "would cost employers large and small, billions of dollars annually while providing uncertain new benefits." The action, applauded by pro-business organizations and derided by pro-labor, placed the future of an all-encompassing ergonomic standard in doubt. It did not, however, erase employers' responsibility for doing what they can to address incidences of MSDs and ergonomic hazards.

The science of ergonomics

Ergonomic science is the study of human capabilities and limitations, says Lynn Strother, executive director of the 5,000-member Human Factors and Ergonomic Society (HFES), a Santa Monica, CA-based organization that studies problems workers have adjusting to their environment. The knowledge gathered from these studies is applied to the design of products and services that are user friendly for people. The result, says Strother, should be comfort and productivity.

"People don't have to adjust in uncomfortable ways to products or systems," she says. "The product or system should be natural for people to use, maximize human capabilities and accommodate human limitations. Ergonomics is understanding human characteristics and incorporating that understanding into the design of things we use."

As a discipline, ergonomics is about 50 years old, newer than physics, but not so new as e-commerce. Ergonomics grew up with the personal computer boom in the 1980s. In 1990, OSHA statistics indicated that RSIs were the fastest growing category of occupational illnesses. Then-Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Dole initiated the ergonomic rulemaking process that eventually resulted in the Ergonomics Program; Final Rule, otherwise known as the "800-page gorilla." The document, located on OSHA's Web site (www.osha.gov), includes the 14-page ruling itself, along with hundreds of pages of data that reflect 10 years of research activity.

In a nutshell, the rule assigned ergonomic remedies based on the frequency of reported, work-related incidences of MSDs. If a company received no complaints, the rule required only that its employees be informed about MSDs. If a company determined it had ergonomic complaints related to a job, it was required to implement and monitor an ergonomics program. If the frequency of injuries exceeded OSHA standards, the company was required to modify the job until the ergonomic problem was eliminated. To ensure that workers would not be fired for reporting injuries, the new standard made injured workers eligible for a work-restriction program of up to three months. Employers were required to pay 100% of the injured worker's salary during this time.

The ergonomic debate

Opposition to the ergonomic rule is as old as the rulemaking process itself. Upon the ruling's passage, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and a number of other organizations filed suit against it. Its repeal was supported by business interests, congressional Republicans and six Democrats. Explaining the resistance, North Carolina-based attorney Craig Senn says "it wasn't necessarily that companies are looking to have unsafe workplaces. They were concerned that the ergonomics standard would not be effective in eliminating what it was intended to eliminate, namely MSDs and their related costs." Senn, whose lawfirm represents companies and management in disputes with employees and/or OSHA, says his clients identified three major flaws in the ergonomic standard:

•     OSHA's General Duty Clause and an ergonomic standard are redundant. If workplace injuries can be prevented through ergonomic controls, then it is the employer's responsibility to implement ergonomics. The company's failure to do so violates the General Duty clause for a safe and healthy workplace.

• Ergonomics is not an exact science. OSHA has failed to prove with medical certainty the validity of ergonomics. Its own experts could not agree on how much weight was safe to lift in a 1998 case against an Ohio-based tire manufacturer. In another ergonomics case with food maker Pepperidge Farm, OSHA lost because it could not identify changes to eliminate ergonomic hazards. Investments in ergonomic equipment, workstation redesign and tool restructuring could, therefore, not be justified.

•     The standard costs too much. According to Senn, standard-related costs to a company would have included both investments in new equipment, as well as additional compensation for injuries. He says some companies were reluctant to make such equipment investments, and felt that worker's compensation was sufficient coverage for injuries.

"What the federal ergonomics standard proposed to do was make a one-size-fits-all approach, when each employee is different," says Senn. "We have not been able to figure out why one employee will develop a repetitive stress injury, and another employee the same age, gender and build, doing the same job for the same amount of time will not. Because it is a case-by-case, employee-by-employee, job-by-job type issue, a standard is difficult to administer."

Although some supporters of the ergonomics standard concede that the Final Rule may have been flawed, they argue that it was, nonetheless, a positive step toward addressing the problem of MSDs in the workplace. Supporters include unions (the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and the AFL-CIO, among others), the Material Handling Institute of America (MHIA), and the many manufacturers of ergonomic products.

"It was a standard that was going to make into law the fact that industry really needed to do something about MSDs," says James Galante, director of product support and market development for Southworth International Group, Inc., a Portland, ME-based maker of work-positioning lifts, turntables and tilting devices. "(Industry) could no longer give ergonomics lip service. They had to take a more active and aggressive role." Galante feels the business community's reaction to the ergonomics standard is comparable to its reaction to the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act.

"I don't think anyone ever argued with the fact that we like clean water or clean air," he reasons. "But everyone feared the standard" because they thought it would put companies out of business and cost too much, he says. "This is the knee-jerk reaction that we as American businessmen have to government-imposed standards." Galante argues that obscuring the ergonomics issue within the General Duty clause would be like including the Clean Water Act within a general clean-environment statute where compliance issues would likely be defined only in general terms. He stresses that years of research have validated ergonomics as not only a true science, but as a serious issue for industry.

"The ergonomic standard recognized that every human body is different," says Galante. "What is mild work to me may be strenuous work to you. It recognized that trying to define a very specific quantitative set of lifts, or repetitive motions wasn't going to work."

To get to this point, ergonomic pioneers like Stover H. Snook, a Tufts University researcher, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), developed tables and formulas that take into account distance and angle of lifting, frequency, how a load of a specified weight is lifted and by whom (male or female). Snook's tables establish the maximum acceptable lifting weights for males and females. The NIOSH formula for determining the recommended weight limit defines a specific set of task conditions that healthy workers (those with no health conditions that would increase the risk of an MSD) can lift without risk of a back injury.

"These studies define the ergonomic limits of lifting, bending and reaching," says Galante. "Each one is its own little science and each one tries to define the limits of the human body." This information, available on CD from the Charlotte, NC-based MHIA and other sources, can be incorporated into any ergonomics program. It enables a plant manager to evaluate any task in the plant to determine whether the worker is in danger of a repetitive stress injury.

How useful is this information? "Every ergonomics program I have encountered has paid for itself," says David Cochran, a professor of industrial engineering at the University of Nebraska who participated in the rulemaking process as a consultant for OSHA. He cites a 1988 example in which OSHA fined South Dakota-based International Beef Packers (IBP), Inc., $3.1 million for ergonomic violations at one of its plants related to knife usage, cutting and packing. Afterwards, the company implemented an ergonomics program in which workstations and equipment were redesigned, employee ergonomic monitors were installed and workers were trained about the importance of ergonomics and safety. "Some jobs that were once among the most difficult were made easier because of the equipment or layout modifications," says Gary Mickelson, IBP communications manager. "This, in turn, reduced various injuries and illnesses." Mickelson adds that the ergonomic efforts "also helped worker compensation costs, and, we believe, enhanced employee retention."

This is the type of bottom-line result that should drive demand for ergonomic-related tools and machinery, ruling or no ruling, says Galante. "For anyone who sells equipment based on an ergonomic justification," he says, "the onus is on them to show their customers where the ROI is."

Is there an ergonomic standard in the future?

In its research, OSHA learned that well-managed and organized companies were already addressing ergonomic issues. The Final Rule only reinforced many of the best practices that were already in place. In general, these companies were not impacted by the acceptance of the ergonomics standard or its repeal. Many pro-ergonomics supporters believe that the exposure the standard and ergonomics received during the approval and repeal process only increased public awareness about the importance of ergonomics.

"We are seeing an increased awareness," says Matt Block, safety products manager at Magid Glove and Safety, a Chicago, IL-based maker of industrial safety equipment. "We've seen an increase in sales of products like ergonomic chairs." He adds that other ergonomically designed products like anti-vibration hand tools and gloves have always been strong for the company.

Following the repeal of the ergonomics standard, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao defined her and the new administration's commitment to ergonomics. "Ergonomics injuries are real," she said in testimony before the Senate in April. "And defining the best, comprehensive approach for ergonomic injuries is not a simple process." She outlined six principals - prevention, science, incentives, flexibility, feasibility and clarity - to help "provide a starting point for common understanding, and a point from which consensus can be attained."

While supporters of the repealed standard would like to see another ergonomics rule, consensus is not likely to include a revised, comprehensive ergonomic standard, say experts. But in the absence of significant ergonomic developments at the federal level, states may elect to pursue the issue, says attorney Senn, who notes that both California and Washington have ergonomic rules in place. Regardless, he notes, "There is no reason for companies to ignore safety issues. They are still subject to existing OSHA laws. Companies should continue to review their worksite on a case-by-case-basis and do everything they can to keep a safe workplace."

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