2002: The Year of Ergonomics

In the upcoming election year, look to the Secretary of Labor for an ergonomics plan.

2002: Year of Ergonomics

It’s an election year and Congress has to do something about ergonomics. No legislator who voted to overturn OSHA’s ergonomics standard can afford to have an opponent harping on that fact. So the pressure will be on Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao to establish some kind of pro-ergonomics track record. And quick!

During 2001 Secretary Chao said all the right things about ergonomics. She promised to:

• Recognize the fact that workplaces are different, and you can’t have a one-size-fits-all standard such as OSHA tried to promulgate.

• Make any ergonomics initiative cost-effective to small business. (OSHA said that its ergo standard was affordable, but it wasn’t.)

• Simplify every ergonomics effort. (OSHA’s ergonomics standard needed to be explained in a 300-page doorstop of a preamble, followed by another 300-page explanation.)

• Avoid confusion in applying science and research to ergonomics. (OSHA used some very hokey studies in its effort to justify every aspect of the ergonomics standard.)

• Focus efforts on cooperation between employers and employees in ergonomics initiatives.

“Employers understand that best safety practices are good for business and are in the best interests of their workers,” Secretary Chao said. (Certainly, cooperation wasn’t built into OSHA’s ergonomics standard; but I don’t think that trust alone will do the job. Some kind of regulation is needed to add muscle to the effort.)

Material handling practices and equipment will come out ahead in any effort to make ergonomics more practical and understandable. Tom Carbott is senior director of sales at Material Handling Industry of America and MHIA executive of the Ergonomic Assist Systems and Equipment (EASE) Product Council. “Whether there is a standard or not, there are benefits to an ergonomics program, ranging from the reduction of health care premiums and workers’ compensation premiums to increased worker productivity, morale and safety in the workplace,” Carbott says.

“Our concern was that people were taking sides on the standard: whether it was good or not. They were unable to separate the standard from ergonomics.”

Brian McNamara, president of Southworth Products Corporation and a member of EASE, thinks that material handling equipment sales would have benefited somewhat from the OSHA standard but the reputation of ergonomics would suffer from the fallout. “I pointed out to other suppliers of material handling equipment that it’s not the overturning of the standard that’s going to hurt us but all the bad publicity that went with it. There are a lot of people in the marketplace who said, ‘They got rid of that evil ergonomics.’”

As the Compliance column in May said, “We in material handling don’t need a fistful of studies to convince us that lifting heavy loads or repeated lifting or awkward lifting cause damage to the back. That’s why the industry developed lift tables, manipulators, balancing hoists, jib cranes, and grippers and grabs of all types. Ergonomics merely refines the concept and puts more emphasis on what the ergonomists call musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).”

I have a feeling that whatever initiative comes from Secretary Chao’s office will reflect more material handling concepts and practices than OSHA’s 600 pages of preamble.

Bernie Knill, contributing editor, [email protected]

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