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June 3, 2002 7:37 AM CDT

OSHA's Comprehensive Plan to Reduce Ergonomic Injuries


The Occupational Safety and Health Administration unveiled a long-awaited, new comprehensive plan to dramatically reduce ergonomic injuries through a combination of guidelines, tough enforcement, workplace outreach, advanced research, and voluntary compliance. In introducing the new standard, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said, "Our goal is to help workers by reducing ergonomic injuries in the shortest possible time frame. This plan is a major improvement over the rejected (old) rule because it will prevent injuries before they occur and reach a larger number of at-risk workers."

The MCAA provided written testimony to Secretary Chao outlining the impact the old ergonomic standard would have on the masonry industry. "We are delighted with the new approach. Unfortunately, the Democrat Leadership in Congress has already drawn the battle lines to go back to the old Clinton version, a 600-page standard that would devastate the masonry industry. They are calling for ergonomics to be a battle cry for the fall midterm elections when the entire U.S. House of Representative and one-third of the Senate is up for reelection" said Paul Odom, MCAA Legislative Chairman. "We are only beginning the long fight over this issue."

In a press release, Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) is quoted as saying, "The Bush Administration took the final step in abolishing a vital ergonomic standard to protect workers from repetitive stress disorders in the workplace. When the Democrats regain control over the House in 2003, one of our first priorities will be to pass legislation to reinstate the importance of worker protection."

According to Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), senior Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, "The sad fact is that as long as the Republicans control the U.S. House of Representatives, we will not be able to pass an ergonomics law that provides long-overdue basic workplace protections."

Many Democrats don't appear ready to wait until the fall elections to move to a stronger ergonomics standard. Rumor is that Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) is planning to introduce legislation that would force OSHA to issue tougher regulations and to not exempt construction from those tougher standards.

OSHA's New Four-Pronged Approach
Effective ergonomics is part of OSHA's overall strategy for reducing workplace injuries and illnesses. Injuries and illnesses related to ergonomics, often called musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), are on the decline in the workplace; OSHA's goal is to accelerate that decline.

Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao made a commitment in April 2001 to develop a comprehensive approach to ergonomics. To fulfill that commitment, OSHA conducted three public forums around the country in July 2001, collecting 368 written comments and hearing 100 speakers; members met with stakeholder groups and individuals to discuss various views on the issue; they analyzed the comments and recommendations; then reviewed relevant and helpful information from other sources, including the past ergonomics docket; they studied the various options; and finally researched various alternative approaches.

Out of that work, OSHA developed a four-pronged comprehensive approach to ergonomics that the agency believes will quickly and effectively address MSDs in the workplace. This approach is based on the principles outlined by the Secretary for an effective approach to ergonomics: preventing injuries; using sound science in formulating a strategy; providing incentives for cooperation between OSHA and employers; maximizing flexibility and avoiding a one-size-fits-all approach; creating a feasible program, especially for small businesses; and ensuring clarity, including short, simple, common-sense solutions.

The four segments of OSHA's strategy for successfully reducing injuries and illnesses from MSDs in the workplace are:

OSHA will develop industry- or task-specific guidelines for a number of industries based on current incidence rates and available information about effective and feasible solutions. This work will take into account guidelines and best practices already developed, including OSHA's own Meatpacking Guidelines, issued in 1990. OSHA will encourage other industries to develop ergonomic guidelines to meet their own specific needs.

The goal is to encourage industry to implement measures as quickly as possible to reduce work-related MSDs. OSHA expects to start releasing guidelines in selected industries in six months.

OSHA's primary goal is the reduction of injuries and illnesses in the workplace. Employers must keep their workplaces free from recognized serious hazards under the OSHA Act's General Duty Clause. This includes ergonomic hazards.

OSHA will not focus its enforcement efforts on employers who have implemented effective ergonomic programs or who are making good-faith efforts to reduce ergonomic hazards.

OSHA will conduct inspections for ergonomic hazards and issue citations under the General Duty Clause and issue ergonomic hazard alert letters where appropriate. OSHA will conduct follow-up inspections or investigations within 12 months of certain employers who receive ergonomic hazard alert letters.

OSHA will conduct specialized training of appropriate staff on ergonomic hazards and abatement methods and designate 10 regional ergonomic coordinators and involve them in enforcement and outreach.

OSHA will address ergonomic hazards in its national emphasis program, notifications, and inspections of employers in the Site Specific Targeting program, and will offer assistance to those employers in this group who have a high percentage of MSDs.

Outreach and Assistance
OSHA will provide assistance to businesses, particularly small businesses, and help them proactively address ergonomic issues in the workplace. OSHA will also provide advice and training on the voluntary guidelines and implementation of a successful ergonomics program.

OSHA will target its Fiscal Year 2002 training grants to address ergonomics and other agency priorities, including support for the development of ergonomic training materials and the direct training of employers and employees to promote a better understanding of ergonomic risks and the prevention of MSDs. OSHA will develop a complete and comprehensive set of compliance assistance tools, including Internet-based training and information, to support understanding of guidelines and how to proactively define and address ergonomic problems.

OSHA will provide courses at its 12 nonprofit educational partner organizations, known as Education Centers, for private sector and other federal agency personnel, and will develop and utilize distance learning to make training materials available to a wider audience.

OSHA will focus on developing new partnerships to implement and highlight the value and effectiveness of voluntary ergonomic guidelines and will use its existing partnership programs to facilitate the development of guidelines. Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP) sites will be used to help model effective ergonomic solutions. VPP volunteers will mentor other worksites, and provide training assistance.

OSHA will also develop new recognition programs to highlight the achievements of worksites with exemplary or novel approaches to ergonomics.

As part of the Department of Labor's cross-agency commitment to protecting immigrant workers, especially those with limited English proficiency, the new ergonomics plan includes a specialized focus to help Hispanic and other immigrant workers, many of whom work in industries with high ergonomic hazard rates.

While there is a large body of research available on ergonomics, there are many areas where additional research is necessary, including gaps identified by the National Academy of Science (NAS). OSHA will serve as a catalyst to encourage researchers to design studies in areas where additional information would be helpful.

OSHA will charter an advisory committee that will be authorized to, among other things, identify gaps in research related to the application of ergonomics and ergonomic principles to the workplace. This advisory committee will report its findings to the Assistant Secretary and to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

OSHA will work closely with NIOSH and through the National Occupational Research Agenda process to encourage research in needed areas.

What is an ergonomic injury?
Input from a recent ergonomics forums demonstrated to OSHA that there is a wide degree of opinion on how OSHA should define an ergonomic injury and the definition adopted by OSHA depends on the context. Ergonomic injuries are often described by the term "musculoskeletal disorder" or MSD. This is the term in scientific literature that refers collectively to a group of injuries and illnesses that affect the musculoskeletal system; there is no single diagnosis for MSD. As OSHA develops guidance material for specific industries, the agency may narrow the definition as appropriate to address the specific workplace hazards covered. OSHA will work closely with industry to develop definitions for MSD as part of its overall effort to develop guidance material.

About the Author

Michael Adelizzi was the Executive Director of the Mason Contractors Association of America.


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