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The OSHA Ergonomics Standard
After several unsuccessful attempts to promulgate an ergonomics standard, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) revealed its latest proposal in the Federal Register on November 23, 1999. The objective of thesafety regulation is to reduce the occurrence of musculoskeletal disorders(MSDs) that are attributable to occupational activities. MSDs are injuries and disorders of the muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage, and spinal discs. The most prevalent MSDs include carpal tunnel syndrome, tendinitis, tenosynovitis, epicondylitis,rotator cuff syndrome, low back pain, herniated spinal discs, carpet layer’s knee, trigger finger, and sciatica. OSHA hopes that the current proposal will be more acceptable to opposition groups than earlier drafts. It anticipates that the annual cost for implementation will be $4.2 billion with offsetting savings of $9 billion.

OSHA’s rules will be closely scrutinized during two months of public hearings in several cities beginning on February 22 in Washington, D.C. OSHA will then makerevisions and, if all goes well, publish the final rules before the end of the year. What jobs are affected? The regulation primarily targets jobs that involve manufacturing and/or manual handling.
  • Manufacturing jobs are defined as “production jobs in which employees perform the ‘physical work activities’ of producing a product and in which these activities make up a significant amount of their worktime”.
  • Manual handling jobs, on the other hand, are “jobs in which employees perform forceful lifting/lowering, pushing/pulling, or carrying. Manual handling jobs include only those jobs in which forceful manual handling is a core element of the employee’s job.”
Other jobs in general industry (including office jobs) would not be covered by the ergonomics standard unless an OSHA recordable MSD occurs after the final rules are published. The only economic sectors currently exempted are agriculture, construction, and maritime services. OSHA plans to cover these industries with yet-to-be-rules.

Within any given company the rules would apply only to specific jobs. Suppose XYZ Company has 4,000 employees working in 150 different jobs including 40 manufacturing and manual handling jobs as defined by the standard. The total number of jobs initially affected is 40. Each of the other 110 jobs is exempted until an OSHA recordable MSD has occurred.

What must employers do? In general, employers must establish an ergonomics program that encompasses all jobs covered by the standard (i.e., manufacturing jobs, manual handling jobs, andall others in which an OSHA recordable MSD has occurred). In order to be in compliance with the rules, an ergonomics program must have the following six elements:
  • Management leadership and employee participation.
  • Hazard information and reporting.
  • Job hazard analysis and control.
  • Training.
  • MSD management.
  • Program evaluation.
The requirements for each of the six elements are described in detail in the standard which may be obtained by visiting the OSHA web site — www.osha.gov

In order to ease the burden on businesses, the initial ergonomics program for manufacturing and manual handling jobs is only required to have the first two elements (see list above). The remaining four elements do not need to be added until after a work-related MSD has occurred. For all other jobs (jobs not involving manufacturing or manual handling) no initial program is required, but a full six-element program is mandatory after the first recordable MSD. The full program must remain in effect for at least three years. Requirements are slightly less stringent for small businesses.

In some instances an employer may take advantage of the “quick fix” provision of the regulation to avoid having to implement a full ergonomics program after a recordable MSD has occurred. The “quick fix” provision requires:
  • Prompt removal of the “MSD hazards”.
  • Consultation with the affected employee or employees.
  • MSD management (see below).
  • Monitoring of the “quick fix” for effectiveness.
If the "quick fix" is not effective or if another recordable MSD is reported for that job within 36 months, the employer usually has no choice but to implement a full ergonomics program for that specific job.

The methods used to remedy deficiencies are left solely to the employer. The standard does not mandate specific fixes such as adjustable furniture for an office worker that develops carpal tunnel syndrome.

How are injured employees compensated?
The MSD management and compensation provisions of the standard are perhaps the most controversial and will certainly be challenged by businesses.
  • In its present form the regulation would require employers to pay all employee medical expenses associated with work-related MSDs and to comply with work restrictions imposed by treating physicians and other qualified health care providers.
  • If an injured employee is assigned to alternate work, then that employee would also be entitled to receive 100% of his/her after-tax earnings plus all benefits throughout the restricted work period.
  • For workers that are unable to work the entitlement is 90% of after-tax earnings plus all benefits.
  • Finally, if an employee receives workers’ compensation benefits or earns income from a temporary job during the recovery period, the employer’s obligation would be reduced by the amount received from other sources.
The maximum benefit period for each work-related MSD is six months.

How does the standard affect existing ergonomics programs?
Existing ergonomics programs for manufacturing and manual handling jobs in private industry may be continued if they contain all six of the required elements (see above) and are “at least as effective” as the Federal rules. Programs that are deficient may be upgraded if the changes are made before the effective date for the standard (i.e., 60 days after publication of the final rules).

What can I do?
Interested parties may obtain a copy of the ergonomics standard and answers to frequently asked questions (FAQ) by visiting the OSHA web site at www.osha.gov. The abbreviated version of the regulation is only 22 pages in length. OSHA invites comments from organizations and individuals. Written comments must be submitted by mail, fax, or electronic transmission no later than February 1. Alternately, interested parties may attend one of the public hearings and present their comments verbally.

Concluding Remarks
The ergonomics standard, if enacted, would be the most sweeping safety regulation in U.S. history. It could ultimately affect up to 27 million workers at 1.9 million work sites. Some businesses and conservative politicians are expected to voice strong opposition. Labor organizations, on the other hand, generally back OSHA's rule-making efforts, but some do not think that the provisions of the current draft are strong enough to adequately protect workers. It remains to be seen whether OSHA has the necessary support to make the ergonomics standard a reality.

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