Expert: Be Ahead Of Ergo Standard Curve

If you haven't designed an ergonomics program, don't wait for the OSHA standard before acting, National Safety Council Congress attendees learn.

With the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) proposed ergonomics standard expected to be published in the next few weeks, many companies without ergonomics programs are looking for ways to design ergo guidelines for their safety programs.

Guideline suggestions and tips for reducing repetitive stress injuries and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) were offered to attendees of the 87th annual National Safety Council (NSC) Congress & Expo by Dr. Lida Orta-Anes. She is a project ergonomist for the Health and Safety Department, International Union, United Automobile, Agricultural Implement Workers of America.

While a proactive approach would be to design an ergonomics program before repetitive stress injuries and MSDs occur, there are steps to take if a problem arises, Orta-Anes said.

The first step would be to seek a cause for a worker's injury. Unfortunately, the biggest debate in whether there is enough scientific evidence to issue a standard has focused on causation. If a cause can be determined, though, ergonomic design and engineering controls can be put in place, Orta-Anes said.

One of the most important aspects of designing ergo guidelines is anthropometry, Orta-Anes said during the "Designing Ergonomics Guidelines" session. It is the branch of ergonomics study that deals with measuring and collecting body dimension information.

"It is important to know this information because you need to ensure that the majority of your workers can perform the job when you implement ergonomics improvements," she said.

When implementing those improvements, Orta-Anes said, there are three things to keep in mind:

  1. Determine what tasks are being performed;
  2. Determine what percent of the population is performing those tasks; and
  3. Design improvements according to gender.

Unfortunately, there are too many companies not dealing with ergonomics, OSHA Region 5 Administrator Michael Connors said during an NSC Congress session titled "Ergonomics: Is It Ready to Be Regulated?" Because many companies, especially smaller employers, do not have an ergo program, that is why a standard is needed, Connors added.

Employers are trying to do the right thing, claims Robb Mackie, vice president of government relations for the American Baker's Association. As a result, injury and workers" compensation rates for MSDs are declining, indicating that more companies are developing ergonomics programs that work, Mackie said.

While agreeing that these ergonomic rates are declining, Jacqueline Nowell countered that there still are too many examples of companies that do not have ergo programs and, as a result, have repetitive motion and MSD problems. Nowell, director of occupational safety and health for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, said that forward-thinking companies have these programs.

OSHA Administrator Charles N. Jeffress told Congress attendees in New Orleans that he is putting the finishing touches on the proposed ergonomics standard and expects it to be published in the Federal Register in the next few weeks. In fact, the proposal is so close to being ready that Jeffress decided that Marthe Kent, OSHA's director of occupational safety standards, should remain in Washington, D.C., rather than speak at the Congress, so she could keep working on the proposal.

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