OSHA Releases Voluntary Ergonomic Guidelines for Retail Grocers

Just before the Memorial Day weekend, the Bush administration took another step in its voluntary, industry-specific approach toward addressing one of the most common workplace illnesses: musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

OSHA has now released ergonomic guidelines for two industries with some of the highest rates of repetitive motion injuries: nursing homes, and now retail grocers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2002, the incidence rate in the retail grocery sector for MSDs involving days away from work was 90.5 per 10,000 full time workers, versus a rate of 55.3 for the entire private sector. BLS also reports that in 2001, MSDs in stock handlers and baggers rose by 14.5 per cent.

OSHA is continuing to work on ergonomic guidelines for poultry processors and the shipyard industry.

"Working with trade associations, labor organizations, and individual grocery stores, we have developed these guidelines which are practical tools that have been shown to reduce work-related injuries in retail grocery stores," said OSHA Administrator John Henshaw. While labor and industry groups agreed that the agency incorporated many of their ideas into the final document, both stakeholder groups expressed reservations about the value of the guidelines.

What appeared to provoke industry opposition is that the new guidelines urge employers to implement an ergonomics program.

"Our biggest concern is the reliance on formal ergonomics programs, training, and recordkeeping," commented Eric Nicoll, director of government relations for the Food Marketing Institute (FMI), an industry association.

The guidelines state, "OSHA recommends that employers develop a process for systematically addressing ergonomic issues in their facilities, and incorporate this process into an overall program to recognize and prevent occupational safety and health hazards."

OSHA suggests that a successful ergonomics program will include:

  • Clear goals, and company commitment to achieving them;
  • Assignment of training and job analysis responsibilities to designated staff members;
  • Providing appropriate resources;
  • Employee participation.

The document offers detailed suggestions on the elements of a successful store-wide program, equipment changes, workstation design, and work method solutions to particular MSD hazards commonly found in retail grocery operations, such as checkout and bagging, stocking, meat and deli departments.

OSHA also provides two checklists: one for identifying potential ergonomic risk factors by workplace activity, and a second for identifying job-specific ergonomic concerns. The guidelines include numerous illustrations depicting correct working postures.

In a written statement, FMI contended that OSHA needed to go further "to acknowledge that factors outside the workplace may contribute to repetitive-stress injuries," although the OSHA document does note that not all MSDs are necessarily work-related.

"They used a lot of our ideas, which is good, but it's still very vague in terms of problem-solving," complained Jackie Nowell, director of occupational safety and health for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Nowell contended that the guidelines propose solutions at a "simplistic" level, and so will be of little value to large supermarket chains, where most of the ideas contained in the guidelines have already been implemented.

"The real question is how the independent 'mom and pop' stores will look at this," said Nowell. "If FMI sells [the guidelines] these stores will pick them up, but if the trade group is obstructionist, they won't even look at them."

Nicoll said FMI will "most likely post the guidelines on our Web site, even though we don't feel this is the best product OSHA could come out with." The institute, he added, would "encourage our members to take a look at it, and use it if they think it will be helpful."

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