Businesses have been keeping a sharp eye on Washington for the past year, waiting to see what will happen with OSHA''s proposed ergonomic standard.
While it is still uncertain whether any action will take place this year, one ergonomics expert says only a fool would think that inaction this year spells the end of OSHA''s plans to implement some sort of standard for ergonomics.
"Back in the spring, I attended a conference where everyone was buzzing about what OSHA was going to do," said Charlie Kopin, director of off-site services for Industrial Health Care (IHC), Connecticut''s largest occupational health care provider.
Kopin spends his days addressing ergonomics problems and educating employees on the do''s and don''ts of ergonomics.
"It''s unfortunate that the word ''ergonomics'' has become very scary in certain business circles. Companies are really quite nervous about what OSHA will do. I am almost positive that we''ll be seeing some sort of standards coming down the pike in the next couple of years. What the final form will be, I don''t know. But now is the time that companies need to start getting ready."
The proposed standards will affect all companies with workers involved in manual handling.
Additional standards will apply to companies that experience one or more work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) after the basic standard takes effect.
What has been causing the most concern is confusion over exactly what will be required and how much it will cost to meet those requirements.
"We still don''t know exactly what businesses will be required to do, but we only have to look at the proposed standards to see what direction we''re moving in," said Kopin. "I advise business leaders to look at what is being proposed and then try to apply it to their workplaces as best as possible. That way, when the final standards are approved, they will already be ahead of the game."
Kopin said one of the easiest steps a company can take is to appoint a person to be responsible for ergonomics training and review.
Most large companies have a safety committee, and Kopin said one of that committee''s members could be appointed to concentrate on ergonomics.
That person should also work on establishing a company policy on ergonomics and help employees report possible problems.
The safety committee should also make ergonomics one of its on-going concentration areas, said Kopin.
All work areas should be monitored for problems and modifications should be made if some are discovered.
More importantly, once changes are made, the committee should also make sure it checks back to ensure those modifications are effective.
Kopin said nothing makes a problem worse than a modification that isn''t correctly adhered to because workers were not properly informed or educated.
"The easiest way to treat ergonomic problems is to prevent them from happening," said Kopin. "Education is the best preventative and this can be done by providing employees with a handbook that discusses ergonomic risk factors like posture and repetition as well as signs and symptoms of MSDs. By having an educated workforce, employees will be able prevent problems and then allow modifications to be made to the workplace to prevent further damage. OSHA has always looked favorably upon companies that are actively trying to keep their workforce healthy."
One of the biggest concerns for companies is what may happen once an MSD is diagnosed in an employee, noted Kopin.
OSHA''s current proposed standard requires that companies with injuries perform reviews of the workplace to eliminate or reduce MSD hazards. But this re-engineering is raising red flags because of the possible cost involved.
"OSHA says it anticipates a cost of $150 per workstation for ergonomic adjustments, so it''s easy to see why a company with 300 employees is concerned," said Kopin. "I think it is important to remember that any cost associated with ergonomic fixes now will pay dividends in the long run by eliminating downtime and injuries."
OSHA is also considering requiring companies to give injured employees medical care, work restrictions, and up to six months medical leave.
Some fear this could lead to an increase in workers'' compensation insurance costs because of increased strain on benefits.
Kopin said overall costs should be kept in line by education and modification. The fewer the MSDs, the less the insurance costs will be.
"Those companies that seek out and try to prevent MSDs really won''t have anything to fear from whatever action OSHA decides to take," said Kopin. "That is why I say companies should start taking action now and not wait for OSHA to impose any mandates."
by Virginia Sutcliffe