Ergonomics Gets a Boost

Making the workplace safer for the employee through ergonomics has never been more popular. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has several new and ongoing projects.

Consider: Ergonomics Guidelines for Nursing Homes ... Ergonomics Guidelines for Poultry Processing ... Ergonomics Guidelines for Retail Grocery Stores. On top of that, there’s a National Advisory Committee on Ergonomics.

What gives?

First, after Congress overturned the original ergonomics standard, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao promised that some type of ergonomics initiative would be forthcoming. But, according to the rules of the Congressional Review Act, there couldn’t be another ergonomics standard. Thus we have all the various ergonomics guidelines being enacted.

Scratch these guidelines, and you’ll find material handling principles embedded. As this column said in 2001, "Ergonomics has much to offer the workplace. For such activities like lifting, pushing, orderpicking, receiving and shipping, ergonomics is merely a refinement of material handling in plants and warehouses."

Maybe you remember OSHA’s first ergonomics standard in 2000; its preamble in the Federal Register was 600 pages of regulation that straitjacketed everybody in industry, from the president down to the newest employee. As we stated in October 2000, "The proposed ergonomics standard, however, is a one-size-fits-all solution that ignores the different ways companies do business in manufacturing and warehousing ..."

Guidelines are a better way to treat ergonomics than a standard for a number of reasons:

-- The guidelines are more material handling friendly than the standard. Lift trucks, conveyors, hoists and ergonomics equipment such as lift tables get treated better in the guidelines than they had in the standard. That’s probably because the authors of the standard were looking at rules rather than results.

-- The guidelines are more real-world than the standard. A guideline applies to one specific industry, like grocery stores, and doesn’t attempt to make one ergonomics solution fit all industries. (Of course, the downside of that is the long wait your company might have before your particular industry is addressed by guidelines.)

-- The standard was larded with research results of lab studies that looked very impressive on paper — page after page of references, like "Chronic achilles parastenonitis: an experimental model in the rabbit. One of the holdovers from the standard to the guidelines is the term musculoskeletal disorder (MSD), which is all about those pesky backaches.

-- The standard is top-heavy with people. Nevertheless, OSHA touted how little it would cost to promulgate. But when you added the expense of overseers to spot every sign and symptom of an MSD (which the standard did), the cost was bound to skyrocket.

In the case of ergonomics, I believe that guidelines are the way to go. Maybe a standard is somewhere in the future, but for now it’s better to build up a track record of things that work.

A subgroup of the National Advisory Committee on Ergonomics was on the right track when it suggested that "OSHA could help make the business case for ergonomics by looking at savings such as lower worker turnover rates, reduced workers comp costs, increased productivity and higher worker morale."

That’s pretty much what material handling has been doing all along.

Bernie Knill, contributing editor [email protected]

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