OSHA Says Ergonomic Guidelines Are the Way to Go

After months of delays that exasperated organized labor, OSHA Administrator John Henshaw released the broad outlines of a business-friendly, four-pronged approach to repetitive motion injuries.

After months of delays that exasperated organized labor, OSHA Administrator John Henshaw released the broad outlines of a business-friendly, four-pronged approach to repetitive motion injuries. At a press conference today Henshaw announced the new plan consists of:

  • Voluntary guidelines for specific industries and tasks;
  • Enforcement of ergonomic hazards under the General Duty clause, 5(a)(1) of the OSH Act;
  • Compliance assistance to help workplaces reduce and prevent ergonomic injuries;
  • Ergonomics research that will be led by a new national advisory committee to help OSHA identify research gaps.

Henshaw said OSHA is already developing guidelines, and though he had no details about which industries and jobs would be receiving the guidelines, he promised to release more details on this part of the program soon.

"You will see guidelines this year," he vowed.

Henshaw pointed out one advantage of the new OSHA guidelines approach is that "we can focus on all workers." The ergonomics standard Congress nullified last year excluded the agriculture, construction, and maritime industries.

Although Henshaw asserted that OSHA''s enforcement of ergonomic hazards under the General Duty clause would contain some novel elements, he had few details here either. "Our strategy will learn from the successes and failures of previous General Duty clause enforcement actions," he said.

A Labor Department spokesperson said there were no specific enforcement goals, and no additional resources would be devoted to the effort. But by coordinating inspections with the Labor Department''s Solicitor''s Office, the agency believes it will be able to target more efficiently prosecutable ergonomic violations.

The difficulty of using 5(a)(1) as an enforcement tool was one reason OSHA decided to develop an ergonomic standard in the previous administration. The current Solicitor of the Labor Department, Eugene Scalia, was a leader in the effort to nullify OSHA''s previous ergonomics standard.

Reaction to OSHA''s ergonomics program reflected the partisan political and economic divisions that have bedeviled previous efforts to deal with one of the most common occupational hazards afflicting U.S. workers.

"Today''s announcement is too little, too late," complained Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

"I am very encouraged by [this] approach," said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., the ranking member of the Senate Labor Subcommittee on Employment and Training.

John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, dubbed OSHA''s program "a meaningless gesture."

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), though supportive of the focus on education, training, and prevention, sounded a cautionary note. NAM President Jerry Jasinowski expressed reservations about "the potential for overzealous enforcement and unwarranted litigation."

For Henshaw, a former safety and health professional in private industry, the success or failure of his ergonomics approach appears not to be tied to political reaction, but to numbers.

"This is an approach that will work," he said, "and we''ll start to see the numbers [of injuries] go down." Earlier Henshaw had said the number of repetitive motion injuries is already declining, so he was asked if the program would accelerate the trend.

"I want to increase the slope of the decline," Henshaw said.

by James Nash

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