Ergonomics

Back in the mid to late ’90s, ergonomics was getting a lot of attention from industry and the business community because of a pending ergonomics OSHA standard. It was anticipated that the OSHA ergonomic standard was imminent. In fact, OSHA published the final regulation with an anticipated effective date of January 2001. Because of strong opposition from the business community, Congress ultimately rejected it as being too complicated and excessively burdensome.

This outcome may have caused some apathy in industry toward ergonomics. It seems to have lost some of its importance, with other safety issues taking front and center. In reality, however, ergonomics deserves and demands our attention as a safety priority based on workplace injury/illness statistics and their related costs.

OSHA’s Position on Ergonomics
OSHA is taking ergonomics for all industries very seriously, and the statistics back them up. According to the recently released report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) accounted for 33 percent of the workplace lost workday cases in 2003. Liberty Mutual estimated that repetitive motion injures alone cost employers $2.8 billion in 2002. The BLS has declared MSDs as the nation’s fastest growing and most widespread workplace hazard.

In April 2002, OSHA announced a four-pronged comprehensive approach to ergonomics designed to quickly and effectively reduce ergonomic injuries in the workplace. This approach includes industry or task-specific guidelines, enforcement under the general duty clause, outreach and assistance to businesses to address ergonomic issues in the workplace, and the establishment of a National Advisory Committee that will identify gaps in research to the application of ergonomics and ergonomic principles in the workplace.

Currently, of OSHA’s 26 state-approved programs, only California has adopted ergonomic standards. Washington, Minnesota and Oregon are in various phases on how best to approach the subject. Other states with approved programs may choose to follow OSHA’s four-pronged approach.

Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs)
The U.S. Department of Labor defines MSDs as an injury or disorder of the muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, cartilage or spinal discs. The risk factors that cause these type of injuries are jobs that involve repetitive, forceful or prolonged exertions of the hands; frequent or heavy lifting, pushing, pulling, or carrying of heavy objects; prolonged awkward postures; and contact stress or vibration. MSDs do not include disorders caused by slips, trips, falls, motor vehicle accidents or similar accidents.

What to Do
Can you afford to sit back and do nothing? Not if it’s costing you money in the form of lost time or restricted work for employees, Workers’ Compensation claims, lost productivity, overtime pay, worker replacement, etc.

Do you know if you have any Workers’ Compensation costs, or what those costs are, for MSD-type injuries? You may want to review your OSHA 300 logs and Workers’ Compensation cases looking for patterns of injuries associated with MSDs. Have you attempted to identify the jobs and work tasks that include the above risk factors that cause MSD-type injuries? You may want to include your employees in discussions about risk factors they face that cause or contribute to MSD-type injuries.

MSD-type injuries should not be viewed as a “cost of doing business” but as an opportunity for savings and profit. Employees should not be “blamed” for MSD-type injuries, but the jobs should be evaluated and changed where needed to lessen the risk factors that cause MSD injuries.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association
Meet the Author
GAWDA OSHA & EPA Consultant Thomas W. Eynon is senior associate at B&R Compliance Associates LLC, based in Merritt, North Carolina. Members can reach him at 252-745-7391 and at tom.eynon@brcompliance.com.