Split Decision

March 1, 2001
Here's the blow-by-blow description on the new National Research Council study of the OSHA ergonomics standard. Ding!

Split Decision

Ever see a prizefight that both fighters thought they had won? At the final bell they both lift their arms in victory and blow kisses to the crowd?

That’s the way it was, and is, with the National Research Council’s study of OSHA’s ergonomics standard. Last year, Republicans and businesses wanted this study to be completed before the president signed off on the standard, hoping that the Council’s findings would sink the ergo regulation. Democrats and unions wanted the president to sign before he left office, just in case the unthinkable happened. He did and it did.

After the study came out, both sides raised their hands and blew kisses. Sometimes in a prizefight two judges will score the winner differently. And then the referee, the third voter, will say that the fight was even. So it becomes a draw.

I call the National Research Council’s report on Musculoskeletal Disorders and the Workplace a draw. Both sides scored enough points to declare victory.

But first I want to say that this fight didn’t live up to its publicity. The hype said it would be about the ergo standard. Instead, 19 experts representing biomechanics, epidemiology, hand surgery, human factors engineering, internal medicine, nursing, occupational medicine, orthopedics, physical medicine and rehabilitation, physiology, psychology, quantitative analysis, and rheumatology, sat down and conducted "a comprehensive review and interpretation of the scientific literature, with the goal of clarifying the state of existing knowledge concerning the roles of risk factors and the basis of various efforts bearing on prevention." But that’s what Congress asked for when it commissioned the study. In some places the panelists supported the ergo standard (winners); in other places, opposed it (losers). Decision a draw.

• Winner: "Data from scientific studies of primary and secondary interventions indicate that low back pain can be reduced under certain conditions by engineering controls (e.g., ergonomic workplace redesign), administrative controls (specifically, adjusting organizational culture), programs designed to modify individual factors (specifically, employee exercise), and combinations of these approaches.

• Loser: "These findings are based on a research and development process that tailors interventions to specific work and worker conditions, and evaluates, on a continuing basis, the effectiveness of these interventions in the face of a changing workplace and worker factors. It is therefore neither feasible nor desirable to propose a generic solution."

• Winner: "To be effective, intervention programs should include employee involvement, employer commitment, and the development of integrated programs that address equipment design, work procedures and organizational characteristics."

• Loser: "There are no comprehensive national data sources capturing medically defined musculoskeletal disorders, and data regarding them are based on individual self-reports in surveys. Explicitly, these reports include work- as well as non-work-related musculoskeletal disorders without distinction; therefore rates derived from these general population sources cannot be considered in any sense equivalent to rates for background, reference, or unexposed groups, nor, conversely, as rates for musculoskeletal disorders associated with any specific work or activity."

• Winner: "The weight and pattern of both the scientific evidence and the very practical quality improvement data support the conclusion that primary and secondary prevention interventions to reduce the incidence, severity and consequence of musculoskeletal injuries in the workplace are effective when properly implemented."

• Loser: "Although generic guidelines have been developed and successfully applied in intervention programs, no single specific design, restriction or practice for universal application is supported by the existing scientific literature."

There you are — quotes with punching power for both fighters. Let’s rruuuuuuuuummmmmmmmmbbbbblllle!

Bernie Knill

contributing editor

[email protected]

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