Keep Ergonomics in the Game

May 1, 2001
Don't kill the ergonomics program because the OSHA standard was demolished. It's time for a workable solution to ergonomic problems.

Keep Ergonomics in the Game

Whatever you do, don’t scrap your ergonomics program just because Congress demolished OSHA’s standard. There are a lot of benefits to your company and its workers buried in those ruins. Let’s excavate the site and search for the valuables.

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 that concept and puts more emphasis on what the ergonomists call musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

We in material handling need no studies to prove that reducing injuries lowers insurance costs, worker’s comp costs, operating expenses and legal fees. (OSHA’s standard would have addressed workplace ergonomics as a standalone factor; in the real world of material handling, a professional has to be concerned about things like falling loads, machinery pinch points and even lighting and work surfaces, as well as ergonomics.) In recent years we’ve seen "injury reduction" become an economic justification for material handling systems.

The ergo standard was promulgated shortly after OSHA’s Powered Industrial Truck Operator Standard; the difference between the two couldn’t have been more striking. PITOT was a typical OSHA standard: narrowly focused and based on solid accident data and economic impact numbers. PITOT’s goal was typical OSHA: Industry must train its powered industrial truck operators!

The ergo standard, on the other hand, was designed to fix every ergonomics problem in every industry. In order to cover all loopholes, the standard would micromanage its way through your company, starting with the president. You couldn’t have complied without adding people and consultants. This was a standard that wouldn’t support serious compromise; its backers would allow tinkering only. So Congress adopted the scorched-earth strategy and destroyed the standard, using the Congressional Review Act.

However, ergonomics is not dead — recent statements from Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao indicate that she is committed to identifying "areas of common ground" in addressing the problem of ergonomics injuries. Read these statements and you get the impression that Secretary Chao will use all the tools in OSHA’s kit to get the job done, rather than a single, unworkable, oppressive standard.

OSHA is not new to the ergonomics game. The agency has implemented some successful strategies that the secretary can build on:

• Target a killer industry. In the early ‘90s OSHA focused on the meatpacking industry with guidelines, training and inspections. The same techniques could be applied to other injury-riddled industries.

• Grants. OSHA says it has awarded $3 million for 25 grants that addressed ergonomics in the healthcare and food processing industries. More grants could be awarded.

• The General Duty Clause in the OSHA Act. Section 5(a)l of the Act requires employers to provide a work environment that is free from serious hazards. This clause could be amended to spell out ergonomic hazards that would qualify.

• Rules that focus on a particular occupation. Narrow-focus standards are needed. Specifically, since the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome seems to be an ergonomics factor in data entry jobs, a rule should be issued for that occupation.

Secretary Chao says in a press release that she is committed to working with "unions, employers, safety professionals and Congress" to find the right strategy. That’s a good line-up, provided that all the players wear the same uniform.

When it comes to compliance, ergonomics is a team sport.

Bernie Knill

contributing editor

[email protected]

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