SAFETY: Is an Ergonomics Standard Premature?

No one wants to get injured on the job, so a standard designed to eliminate work-related repetitive motion disorders would seem like a welcome idea. However, some in the industry say a federal standard is premature - there isn't enough scientific information on what causes repetitive motion injuries (RMI), let alone how to prevent them.

According to industry insiders, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Washington, D.C., has wanted to pass an ergonomics standard for years. So it was no surprise when the organization released a working draft of a standard in January and announced plans to propose a final version in the fall.

In response to a Congressional request for a RMI study, the Washington, D.C.-based Na-tional Academy of Sciences (NAS), reported in October 1998 that workers who face high physical stress, such as heavy lifting and repetitive motion, have high rates of work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSD). NAS also reported that evidence exists that reducing biomechanical stress on the job reduces the injury risk.

Nearly 650,000 workers every year suffer serious injuries and illnesses caused by overexertion, repetition or other physical stress. These maladies account for more than one-third of all lost workdays in the country, and cost U.S. businesses $15 to $20 billion each year in workers compensation costs alone, NAS reports.

In November 1998, Congress funded a second NAS study and promised not to block or delay OSHA's proposed ergonomics standard.

In the meantime, OSHA has decided to focus on areas where the problem is most severe, including manual handling operations, which, along with manufacturing, account for 60 percent of all lost workday WMSDs. Manual handling employees represent 28 percent of the general industry workforce.

OSHA's draft states that employers must take appropriate actions to alleviate workplace problems. For example, employers aren't required to analyze all of their jobs at the onset, but a WMSD occurrence will trigger certain actions and obligations, such as a job hazard analysis, according to OSHA.

An incident trigger ensures that employers take action and helps limit the number of jobs theymust address at one time, OSHA says. Taking action after an occurrence also may help minimize costs for employers with limited or isolated problems.

As required by the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act (SBREFA), OSHA's ergonomics proposal currently is being reviewed by the Small Business Administration (SBA), Washington, D.C., to determine how the rule will affect small businesses.

The proposal currently makes no distinction between large and small companies, something the SBA will study closely, says David Biderman, general counsel for Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.

After the SBA, another government agency will review it before OSHA publishes the final proposal in the "Federal Register" in September.

OSHA does not expect the proposal to pass without comment. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., in March introduced bill HR 987 to prohibit OSHA from implementing an ergonomics standard, at least until more scientific evidence is produced.

Blunt contends that it is premature for OSHA to decide whether a regulation is necessary because the second NAS study has not been completed. He, along with 15 co-sponsors, wants the Secretary of Labor to wait for the results, which are expected in 2000, before passing a standard.

Imposing a solution for ailments and disorders that are grouped as repetitive stress injuries and musculoskeletal disorders before sufficient information about the diagnosis, causes and prevention of such injuries and disorders, is risky, the bill states.

This is because such disorders often have increased in workplaces and industries where OSHA has focused ergonomics-related enforcement actions. And, according to the bill, such disorders generally have been decreasing in workplaces.

One industry insider predicts that Blunt's bill will become a lightning rod for anti-ergonomic regulation groups that will try to get it passed quickly.

According to Biderman, the main concern is that there isn't a scientific link between repetitive tasks in the workplace and injuries. "There definitely isn't enough science yet to provide a basis for what could be expensive and burdensome regulation," he says.

According to Biderman, many see OSHA's proposal as regulation for the sake of regulation, and they are concerned that OSHA is just trying to expand its jurisdiction. In fact, critics say OSHA's standard is unnecessary; companies are taking steps to prevent injuries on their own already.

Drew Sones, assistant director of the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation, says he recently began receiving complaints from drivers about the rocker switches that they hold down with their finger. "Our fleet services, which maintain our vehicles, have started to look at different configurations, such as a joystick and other considerations, that are ergonomically better for these kinds of motions," he explains.

Sones says he does not consider RMI a rampant problem for the industry, but it is something that many operators are looking into as they get employee complaints. "We're looking into it, too, to make sure we address it before it does become a real problem," he says.

Stan Levine, vice president of Potomac Disposal, Rockville, Md., which uses semi-automated equipment, has seen few injuries. Since 1984, Maryland has used 90-gallon carts for the 65 percent to 70 percent of its customers' waste that is lifted by the trucks, not employees.

"That eliminates about 90 percent of any bodily injury because [employees] don't have to lift anything," he says. "We haven't seen many RMIs at all because of the equipment."

Consequently, Potomac does not need the regulation, Levine says. Instead, he suggests a mandate requiring residential homeowners to have a cart, and for haulers to use a tipper to dump the cart into the truck so drivers don't have to lift it.

"That's the only way I can see reducing the injury," he says.

As it stands, OSHA's draft requires employers to implement a six-part program that it says will reduce injury. But the regulation doesn't specifically say what companies must do to comply.

That's the concern that people have, says Biderman, noting that "[employers will] create a program and do things that they think are in compliance with the program, and then OSHA will inspect them three years from now and say, 'You didn't do this.'"

For its part, OSHA says that when it publishes the proposed ergonomics standard, there will be many opportunities for the public to participate in public hearings and written comment periods.

To access the working draft of the ergonomics proposal, visit OSHA's website: