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November 6, 2003 7:19 AM CST

Ergonomics: How Much is too Much?

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As I trust everyone is aware, some 18 months ago, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) adopted a four-pronged approach to ergonomics that included voluntary guidelines, outreach and assistance, an advisory committee and enforcement efforts. OSHA then conducted a National Emphasis Program (NEP) for several industries (beginning with nursing homes) and voluntary guidelines were subsequently developed. Since then, guidelines have been suggested for the poultry processing industry, the retail grocery industry, and there is expected to be guidelines offered for the shipbuilding industry soon.

What's troubling about these guidelines is that they greatly resemble the one-size-fits-all standards issued during the Clinton Administration. These standards were widely criticized by industry and ? due largely to complaints about their potential cost, ineffectiveness and lack of scientific evidence supporting their justification ? Congress rescinded them. It would seem these same old standards are being recycled into so-called voluntary guidelines. So it should come as no surprise to any of us that the guidelines have become somewhat controversial too.

Over the last 18 months, OSHA has conducted 1,376 ergonomics-focused inspections that have been followed up by hundreds of hazard alert letters and 11 citations under the General Duty Clause for violations related to ergonomics. OSHA has made it clear that they will continue their enforcement efforts in ergonomics, notwithstanding the fact that upon introduction of their National Emphasis Program the agency stated it "would never use ergonomics guidelines as a basis for citing employers."

If the shipbuilding industry is next on OSHA's list for voluntary guidelines, we in the masonry industry should be concerned that general construction may not be too far behind. When pressed on that question, the folks at OSHA have told me that they don't plan on targeting general construction. It's a well-known fact, however, that President Bush doesn't want ergonomics to be an "issue" in the 2004 elections. So what will happen is anyone's guess, but we at MCAA remain concerned about the various regulatory activities on ergonomics, whether at the federal or state level.

In a previous article ("Ergonomics Resurfaces in Both Washingtons," September 2002), I discussed the potential impact of the state of Washington's ergonomics regulations on businesses there. Since that time, various industries and trade associations have banded together to have an initiative put on the ballot, Initiative 841, that would repeal the state's costly and onerous ergonomics regulations.

Of major concern to labor-intensive industries in Washington state was the rule's limitation on job performance. Although the rule claims not to require the reduction of an individual's hours of employment, it can require the reduction of an individual's hours doing specific tasks. Therefore, if an employee's responsibility involves tasks the rule describes as "hazardous," the individual can only work on that task for four hours. That means such a position might require two part-time workers or other non-hazardous tasks would need to be identified for the remainder of the shift. This rule simply goes too far and contains far too much discretion of regulatory authorities over workplace conditions.

More importantly, there is no scientific consensus that ergonomics regulations reduce musculoskeletal disorders or prevent workplace injury or illness.

In a critique of existing literature on musculoskeletal disorders and the workplace, a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel recognized that outcomes cannot be reliably predicted based on the workplace environment. According to NAS, "every clinical disorder represents a complex interaction between the affected individual and a variety of determinants of the response of the particular individual to injury." Thus, "the 'dose' of the injuring agent or circumstance may vary widely from person to person, interactive with relevant characteristics of the individual that determine vulnerability or resistance. The complexity of this interaction prevents reliable use of mechanical loads, in isolation, to predict the likelihood of a 'disorder' ? much less an 'injury.'"

Without a doubt, there are many areas of scientific uncertainty that must be taken into account in formulating public policy on ergonomics. MCAA intends to be actively engaged in that debate.


About the Author

Marian J. Marshall was the Director of Government Affairs for the Mason Contractors Association of America.

 

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