At the center of the ergonomics controversy is a rule that is designed to protect workers from musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), such as carpal tunnel syndrome or back injuries.
The rule requires all employers -- except those in the construction, agriculture, railroad and maritime industries -- to provide their workers with basic information about common MSDs and their signs and symptoms by Oct. 14, 2001.
The earlier proposed version of the standard required employers in the manufacturing and manual materials handling sectors to provide information to their employees, survey their workplaces to identify ergonomically hazardous tasks and create written programs to monitor or reduce identified hazards, a provision that is not in the final rule.
But the proposed rule allowed employers in general industry to take no action to comply with the rule until one employee had reported an MSD.
The final rule requires all covered employers to provide their employees with information about ergonomic hazards and MSDs.
The final rule requires additional steps by an employer only when an employee reports an MSD or signs or symptoms of an MSD.
When an employer receives a report of an MSD, the employer must determine whether the MSD is work-related.
If it is work-related and requires days away from work, restricted work or medical treatment beyond first aid, or involves signs or symptoms of an MSD that last seven consecutive days after the employee reports them, the employer is required to formally analyze the conditions that caused the MSD.
First, the employer must determine whether the MSD is "job-related."
An MSD can be "work-related" but not "job-related if it results from something that is not part of an employees routine duties, according to OSHA.
For example, if a clerical worker injures his back while lifting office furniture, the MSD is not job related.
Here are some other provisions of the standard regarding MSDs:
- If an MSD is job-related, the employer must determine whether the job tasks involve any of five risk factors: repetition, force, awkward postures, contact stress and vibration. Examples of tasks that involve ergonomics risk factors include repeating the same motions every few seconds, using a keyboard or mouse for more than four hours a day, or working with elbows above the shoulders or hands above the head for more than two hours a day.
- If the MSD is related to an ergonomic risk factor, the employer can manage the MSD with any combination of medical care, restricted work, time off work and job redesign. If the employer restricts an injured employee''s work, the employer must not change the worker''s rate of pay. If the employer tells the worker to take time off, the employer must pay at least 90 percent of the worker''s normal pay. The employ must maintain those rates of pay for 90 days. An employer can use an employee''s sick time or vacation time to cover wages during time off. In the earlier proposed version of the rule, pay for restricted work or time off was scheduled to continue for 180 days, and an employer could not charge any of it to a worker''s sick or vacation time.
- The standard''s provisions for specific pay rates for injured workers are designed to ensure that workers report MSDs as soon as they occur. "Early reporting and intervention is essential to preventing permanent damage or disability," according to OSHA. "However, there is substantial evidence that, absent protection from economic loss, workers are reluctant to report injuries because they fear losing pay, being fired, or being subjected to other forms of discrimination. Knowing that they will not lose pay as a result of a necessary work absence will make employees more willing to come forward to report their injures."
- If the condition that resulted in the MSD is determined to involve an ergonomic hazard, the employer must implement an ergonomics program that includes management leadership and employee participation, job controls, training and program evaluation.
- Employers will have 60 days to complete an analysis of a job that may have caused an MSD and 90 days to implement initial controls to reduce the hazard.
- During the first two years that the rule is in effect, it will be phased in gradually and employers will have up to four years to implement permanent controls to reduce or eliminate an ergonomic hazard. The phase-in period will end in January 2003. From then on, an employer that identifies an ergonomic hazard will have two year to implement permanent controls.
The standard includes detailed methods for analyzing a job''s ergonomic hazardousness, as well as guidelines that an employer must use to determine whether an ergonomics program is sufficient to result in compliance with the rules.
by Virginia Sutcliffe