OSHA Sets Voluntary Ergonomics Guidelines

After more than a year of wondering how to deal with workplace injuries, waste companies now will be able to follow voluntary, industry-specific ergonomics guidelines, as recommended by the Bush administration.

In March 2001, Congress and the Bush administration repealed Clinton-era mandatory ergonomics regulations. But beginning in April 2002, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Washington, D.C., began developing a voluntary, four-part plan to reduce workplace injuries, or musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), that focuses on:

  • industry-targeted guidelines;
  • enforcement measures;
  • workplace compliance outreach; and
  • additional research.
  • “This plan is a major improvement over the rejected old rule because it will prevent ergonomics injuries before they occur and reach a much larger number of at-risk workers,” says U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Secretary Elaine L. Chao.

    Guidelines: OSHA already has created guidelines for the nursing home industry. The administration currently is encouraging other businesses and industries to develop their own set of guidelines.

    Enforcement: The DOL's ergonomics enforcement program will continue to coordinate inspections and enforce proper workplace procedures.

    Outreach: OSHA will provide specialized training and information to help employers reduce and prevent workplace injuries, and to implement successful ergonomics programs. The administration also will administer targeted training grants and develop compliance assistance tools.

    Research: A national advisory committee will be formed to advise OSHA on research gaps and ways to better communicate the ergonomics issue.

    When Congress and Bush repealed the previous ergonomics regulations, OSHA was forced by the Congressional Review Act to develop a new rule that was substantially different. Consequently, Chao hosted forums where she gathered opinions and ideas from industry representatives, including those in the waste business.

    A new ruling originally was expected by September 2001, but the decision was postponed because of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Finally, in April, the administration made its decision to use voluntary — not mandatory — guidelines.

    “We're pleased that OSHA has decided to go with a voluntary approach to the issue,” says David Biderman, general counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), who testified at one of Chao's forums. “NSWMA has advised its members about the elements of OSHA's plan and hopes to help members reduce injuries to avoid becoming enforcement targets.”

    The Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), Silver Spring, Md., is equally pleased. “SWANA has always been against mandatory standards previously developed,” says John Skinner, association president and CEO. “We'd like to work with OSHA if and when it decides on guidelines specific to the waste industry.”

    The National Safety Council and U.S. Small Business Administration, both based in Washington, D.C., also approve of OSHA's decision.

    But the Washington, D.C.-based AFL-CIO is disappointed. “The plan doesn't provide any protection for workers,” Peg Seminario, AFL-CIO director of safety and health, told Reuters.

    Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., also held a hearing on the subject on April 18. Sen. John Breaux, D-La., has introduced a bill that would require a mandatory standard, and Rep. Christopher John, D-La., has introduced similar legislation in the House.

    If approved, the legislation would require OSHA to issue a new rule within two years. But for now, the administration is moving forward in developing voluntary guidelines for other industries.