Partnership Improves Ergonomics at USPS

Through interventions such as the use of container tilters, flexible vacuum hose nozzles, pallet lifters and adjustable work platforms, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) – with the help of OSHA and USPS' unions – over the past 3 years has reduced its musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) recordable rates and its workers' compensation costs.

OSHA, USPS, the American Postal Workers Union and the National Postal Mail Handlers Union in 2003 formed a partnership to reduce MSDs among USPS' more than 700,000 employees at its 675 mail processing facilities and more than 38,000 retail sites. To achieve this goal, the partners used an ergonomic risk reduction process (ERRP), which is designed to help identify ergonomic risk factors and eliminate or reduce those risks.

According to OSHA, ERRP sites in the process for the full 3 years experienced a 38 percent reduction in their MSD recordable rates and a 40 percent reduction in their handling and lifting rates. Compared to USPS sites that have not implemented the process, ERRP sites' MSD rates are 35 percent lower and ERRP sites' handling and lifting rates are 18 percent lower.

Since the process was initiated, USPS has saved $1.8 million in workers' compensation costs.

“By bringing management, unions and employees together to cooperatively identify potential hazards and ergonomic health risks, the Postal Service, through this partnership, is transforming its workplace safety and health ergonomic program into a model for both the public and private sector,” OSHA Administrator Edwin Foulke Jr. said.

A Team-Oriented Process

One of the goals of ERRP is to teach ergonomic identification and resolution skills to USPS employees. To help achieve that goal, ERRP creates self-sustaining “site core” teams that combine the talents of management, unions and individual craft employees to reduce and/or eliminate potential risk factors.

Site core teams hold 1- to 4-hour workshops once a week. These workshops include activities such as job analysis, training, presentations to management and service talks with employees.

Once an ERRP is initiated at a site, USPS embeds a full-time ergonomist at the site to train the site coordinator from kickoff through implementation – which takes anywhere from 60 to 90 days.

The ergonomist uses a 10-step process to identify jobs with high rates of MSDs. Those jobs then are broken down into tasks and steps. The ergonomic risk then is linked to the steps before identifying an implementation plan, obtaining feedback and determining the cost to implement the solution.

“The ERRP has been successful because it is a systematic process with clearly defined goals,” OSHA says on its Web site. “MSD data is critical for identifying projects and measuring success. With data and clearly defined goals, the four partners can work on ERRP with a steadfast focus.

“Major building blocks for the process are employee participation and leadership from plant management and the union leaders. Employee participation creates credibility, respect and trust not only for the process, but in the workplace. As in any effective safety and health management system, top management commitment is crucial to the success of the ERRP process.”

Good Ergonomic Practices

OSHA's Web site includes an overview of the partnership as well as some examples of good ergonomic practices that have been implemented at USPS facilities.

The ergonomic practices detailed on OSHA's Web site are the brainchildren of ERRP teams across the nation. The practices spotlighted on the Web site were selected from hundreds of task interventions “because the tasks are common to many mail processing facilities and the solutions have general applicability.”

Among the ergonomic practices listed:

  • In a mail prep area, a container tilter was provided to reduce bending and reaching (cost: less than $5,000).
  • For the task of removing dust and debris from automation equipment, a swivel nozzle and a flexible hose attachment were added to vacuum equipment to reduce vacuum operators' awkward wrist and shoulder positions (cost: less than $100).
  • For the task of pulling oversized letters, parcels and flats from the culling belt on the canceling machine, an adjustable and removable platform was installed to allow work to be performed at elbow height. The platform has a yellow border for high visibility (cost: less than $200).
  • For the task of sweeping letters from the delivery barcode sorter bins and placing them in trays, the sort plan was reprogrammed to allow heavy-volume mail to be sorted into bins at the middle level, resulting in less bending (cost: less than $500).

For more good ergonomic practices and information on the partnership, visit http://www.osha.gov/dcsp/partnerships/national/usps/257_usps_ergobp.html.

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