Ergonomics Advisory Committee Meets Enforcement Is Off the Table

Nine months after OSHA vowed that enforcement would be part of its "four-pronged" effort to cut musculoskeletal disorders, the agency has yet to launch a single ergonomics enforcement action.

Some observers at this week's inaugural meeting of OSHA's National Advisory Committee on Ergonomics (NACE) were therefore surprised to hear OSHA Administrator John Henshaw tell the 15-member panel, "enforcement, per se, will not be a part of your deliberations."

Henshaw also made clear that an ergonomics regulation "should not be a part of the committee's discussions" because a regulatory approach is not on OSHA's agenda.

The committee is chartered for two years and is to devote itself to helping OSHA with the three remaining prongs of the agency's ergonomics program: guidelines, outreach and assistance, and continuing research.

Despite these limitations, Henshaw said he had high expectations for the panel. "Our goal is to reduce work-related MSDs as quickly as possible and we need your help," Henshaw declared. He called on NACE to serve as a bridge from the theoretical to the practical.

Committee Chair Carter Kerk said that he and the other members "look forward to working with OSHA and providing the best possible advice on how to reduce MSDs in the workplace."

The committee members spent most of the one-day meeting organizing and listening to OSHA's account of efforts to cut workplace musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) through enforcement, guidelines, and compliance assistance.

Members also heard from John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and NIOSH researcher Tom Waters.

Waters presentation, titled, "MSD Research: Conceptual Framework and Research Gaps," appeared to provoke the liveliest discussion from NACE members.

Very much on the mind of committee members and stakeholders attending the meeting was the question of how much energy the panel will devote to research issues, and how much toward pushing the agency to issue guidelines and ergonomic enforcement actions.

During the public comment period, Bill Kojola of the AFL-CIO told the committee it "should devote little of its time to the identification of gaps in the science of ergonomics and future research needs." Instead, the union wants NACE to focus on OSHA's current effort at defining an MSD as broadly as possible in the recordkeeping standard, pushing OSHA to issue more guidelines, and using the General Duty Clause for ergonomics enforcement.

Kojola's remarks about enforcement were in his prepared written comments, but perhaps in deference to Henshaw's decision to take enforcement off the table, Kojola dropped references to enforcement when he spoke.

Baruch Fellner, representing the National Coalition on Ergonomics, was the other public speaker. He agreed with Kojola on the need for a definition of an MSD, but called for a more narrow, objectively verifiable definition that focused on tissue damage. Fellner called for a critical approach to existing research, and emphasized the many unknowns in the existing science of ergonomics.

The importance of defining an MSD drew support from some NACE members. Although it is too early to tell the direction the committee will take, at the first meeting members appeared to show considerable interest in research questions.

"I think defining an MSD will be key to making progress in the other areas," commented NACE member Dr. Edward Bernacki, president of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, in an interview after the meeting. "Without a definition, you don't know what you're talking about."

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