In a long-awaited move, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has announced a "four-pronged, comprehensive approach" to reducing workplace injuries and illnesses related to ergonomics, often referred to as "musculoskeletal disorders."
Observing that musculoskeletal disorders are declining, OSHA decided not to begin another rulemaking to regulate ergonomics hazards. The U.S. Congress had repealed, as excessively burdensome and complicated, an ergonomics standard adopted by the Clinton administration and forbade the adoption of any substantially identical standard. President Bush’s Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao made a commitment in April 2001 to develop a comprehensive approach to ergonomics. On April 5, 2002, Secretary Chao unveiled OSHA’s plan. The four-prongs of OSHA’s new initiative are the following:
Ergonomics Guidelines: OSHA will write industry- or task-specific guidelines modeled on OSHA’s 1990 Meatpacking Guidelines. OSHA plans to start releasing industry guidelines later this year. OSHA also will encourage industries to develop their own guidelines.
Enforcement Under the General Duty Clause: OSHA will reinvigorate its enforcement program against ergonomic hazards. It will inspect and may issue citations alleging violations of the catch-all "General Duty Clause" of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. In addition, it will issue "ergonomic hazard alert letters" instead of citations to some employers. OSHA will train its enforcement personnel in ergonomic hazards and enforcement, will have special ergonomics inspection teams and will work closely with its lawyers from the start of an inspection. OSHA will generally concentrate its effort on so-called "bad actors"¾ those employers with ergonomics hazards who have neither implemented "effective ergonomic programs" nor made "good-faith efforts" to reduce ergonomic hazards. OSHA states that "a failure to implement a guideline is not itself a violation of the General Duty Clause." Lastly, OSHA is beginning a National Emphasis Program in the nursing home industry focussing on ergonomics hazards relating to patient lifting.
Outreach and Assistance: OSHA will provide compliance assistance to businesses, particularly small businesses. This will include direct training of employers and employees. OSHA has released advice bulletins for avoiding ergonomic injuries in baggage handling, beverage delivery, use of computer workstations, grocery warehousing, hospitals, nursing homes and poultry processing.
Research: OSHA will identify points on which further research is needed and, with the National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health, will encourage that research to be performed.
Steps Employers Can Take to Avoid Inspection or Citation
OSHA is unlikely to open an ergonomics inspection, or issue a citation, if it sees that the employer has a conscientious program in place for identifying and addressing ergonomics hazards. Openness to employees’ comments and a willingness to try to control measures are key components of a simple but effective program.
More specifically, there are three basic steps that employers should consider, including the following:
Spot Potential Hazards: To determine whether tasks or jobs pose ergonomic hazards, employers should observe their operations with an eye towards spotting potential ergonomics issues, review injury and illness records to identify any patterns or trends, be aware of reports of ergonomic problems within their industry and be open to employee comments or suggestions regarding work tasks or workstations.
Try Control Measures: If ergonomic problems are verified, respond with a measure that is reasonable under the circumstances. Not all control measures are difficult or expensive to implement. For example, there is an extensive collection of documents on the "Ergonomics: Solutions" (found at http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/ergonomics/solutions.html ) on OSHA’s website that employers may find useful (see, for example: Ergonomics: Real Solutions for Under $100 at http://www.osha.gov/ergonomics-standard/PROPOSED/solutionsunder100.pdf and Ergonomics: The Study of Work (rev’d 2000) at http://www.osha.gov/Publications/Osha3125.pdf ).
Prepare for an Inspection: Inasmuch as OSHA has been criticized for not doing enough to regulate ergonomics hazards, and ergonomics inspections can be particularly intrusive and challenging, employers in industries with a history of ergonomics complaints or problems should prepare an ergonomics inspection plan in advance. Such a plan would allocate responsibilities for accompanying OSHA inspectors, for handling document requests, for conducting employee interviews and for protecting trade secrets and business confidential information.