Research Symposium Opens Ergo Committee Meeting

Sober presentations on the business case for ergonomic interventions and the epidemiology of repetitive motion workplace injuries marked the controversial research symposium held by OSHA's National Advisory Committee on Ergonomics (NACE), during the first day of a two-day meeting in Washington, DC last week.

On the second day of NACE's meeting, the committee considered recommendations from its guidelines work group that OSHA issue industry specific guidelines for 16 additional industry sectors.

For apparently opposite reasons, an industry association opposed to many government-sponsored ergonomic interventions and 11 prominent ergonomic researchers "boycotted" the research symposium.

The National Coalition on Ergonomics, an industry group, argued that by calling for papers on the business case for ergonomics, the symposium was biased in favor of the value of such interventions. The ergonomic researchers contended that further research into the causation of injuries and the effectiveness of interventions was a wasteful distraction from making progress on ergonomic solutions.

In the end, the symposium was conducted without incident, as NACE members and an audience of approximately 40 people listened to three panels present research findings on the two topics at the top of NACE's research agenda. The committee is in the process of reviewing the information, and will in the future prepare recommendations to OSHA about specific topics that merit further research.

One of the presenters who spoke on the business case for ergonomic interventions was Patricia Seeley, principal consultant for corporate ergonomics at We Energies, an electric utility company.

In Seeley's study, the corporate ergonomist presented to senior management at the host electric utility the true costs of MSDs resulting from the continued use of manual tools for overhead electric utility workers. The data were so convincing that battery-powered tools were immediately purchased; to date over $1.3 million has been spent on the tools.

What Seeley found was that the true costs of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are often hidden from corporate managers. While medical workers compensation costs are traditionally used, she said, even these costs are often not attributed to the operations, personnel, materials or tools budgets.

"These managers regularly say they cannot afford ergonomic improvement, not realizing they cannot afford the cost of medical treatment, lost productivity, replacement workers and other non-traditional costs," Seeley asserted.

Seeley and several other presenters recommended that OSHA fund research that would develop well-controlled studies on the business case for ergonomics and track the short and long term benefits of ergonomic interventions.

Peter Amadio, a medical doctor at the Mayo Clinic, presented research on the physiological changes that may explain the causes of carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). He concluded that evidence for the association of CTS with repetitive motion is "mostly anecdotal," but is strongest for forceful repetitive motion, such as what occurs for red meat-packing workers and some heavy assembly in manufacturing settings.

He called for more research into establishing the correlation of problems that ergonomic interventions try to solve, such as posture and lift load. He also recommended research into the nature of the actual pathologies that underlie MSDs, rather than mere symptoms.

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