Consensus Before Compliance

June 1, 2001
Don't lose sight of the effective and existing material handling safety standards in the push for an OSHA ergonomics standard.

Consensus Before Compliance

OSHA’s ergonomics standard was a top-down, in-your-face regulation. It was them (OSHA) versus us (industry).

Compare it to two more-or-less recent OSHA standards — Lockout/Tagout and Powered Industrial Truck Operator Training (PITOT) — and you see the difference.

Lockout/Tagout and PITOT each had a sharp focus: (1) Prevent fatalities and electrocution by locking out mechanical equipment during maintenance; (2) train every operator of a powered industrial truck (mostly lift trucks). The ergo standard, on the other hand, tried to prevent every ergonomics injury, or any sign or symptom, in any job in every industry.

Except construction, agriculture and maritime —those industries aren't covered by the standard. These exemptions kind of ticked off some participants at the standards hearings last year. I mean, they felt that construction, agriculture and maritime had their share of ergonomics injuries, if not more. In both preambles to the standard, OSHA did some tap-dancing around that objection: non-fixed job sites ... temporary workers ... unique work conditions ... OSHA hasn't done studies ... will address in the future. In short, excuses that you and I wouldn't buy.

Except the one about not enough studies. Hey, what researcher would like to study the ergonomics of moving iron in construction or lifting loads off pallets in ships’ holds — somebody could get hurt.

I'm afraid those niceties were lost on the representative from the National Solid Waste Management Association. He contended that his constituents faced a lot of the same conditions as construction, agriculture or maritime and therefore should be exempt. Also, not much research has been done about health conditions in solid waste management, which is understandable.

Didn't wash. OSHA said the NSWMA members would still be covered by the standard because, well, because OSHA said so.

Lockout/Tagout and PITOT drew a fair number of responses when they were up for commentary, but nothing close to the 11,000 comments (l88,547 pages) generated by the ergo standard. And I didn't see any outpouring from labor on behalf of Lockout/Tagout or PITOT, even though these standards were designed to protect workers from electrocution and accidents and fatalities involving lift trucks.

With the ergo standard, however, power was a factor. The unions were solidly, unanimously and vocally in favor. If you read the standard’s interpretation in both preambles of the proposed standard and the final rule — 600 pages in all — you'll find a power shift to ergonomics — signs, symptoms and MSD hazards — over other types of injuries. In particular, the Health Care Professional, trained in ergonomics, becomes a czar who can overrule just about anybody.

A few months ago, Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao appeared before a Senate subcommittee and pointed out the obvious: The standard was rushed from promulgation to completion; there was no consensus; and OSHA and Congress “have been operating on a collision course for a number of years now.”

Secretary Chao pointed out that OSHA has a budget of $425.4 million in 2001. I’m concerned that too much OSHA money will be spent on politicking for a bad standard, while enforcement and education lag in areas covered by Lockout/Tagout and PITOT.

Ergonomics is a worthwhile technology that material handling has made contributions to since its beginnings. But it shouldn't be allowed to overshadow other safety and health initiatives in industry.

Without consensus there will be collision. Again.

Bernie Knill

contributing editor

[email protected]

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