OSHA's Ergo Advisory Committee Completes its Work

Nov. 18, 2004
The identification of more than half a dozen gaps in ergonomics research and arriving at consensus on a controversial sentence about the causes of repetitive motion injuries marked the last meeting of the National Ergonomics Advisory Committee (NACE).

The committee's two-year charter to provide OSHA with recommendations about ergonomics guidelines, research and outreach expired with the group's Nov. 17 meeting in Washington, D.C. The gaps identified by the research workgroup included:

  • The economic impact of ergonomic interventions within organizations;
  • Multi-factorial causes of musculo-skeletal disorders (MSDs), such as psycho-social, physical, occupational and non-occupational factors;
  • Validity of techniques to diagnose MSDs.

Near the end of the day, OSHA Administrator John Henshaw thanked the committee for its work. He offered no details about any NACE recommendation the agency would adopt, but he promised that OSHA would seriously consider all of them.

"I believe you have made a significant contribution in advancing the dialogue on ergonomics," said Henshaw.

Asked in an interview about what NACE had accomplished, chairman Carter Kerk declined to identify any specific recommendation, but pointed to members' ability to agree. "We reached consensus on nearly everything," he said. "I think that's very significant when you bring together people from so many diverse backgrounds."

Consensus nearly broke down and traces of the old debate over OSHA's ergonomic standard rose to the surface over the wording of a sentence about the causes of MSDs and the effectiveness of ergonomic interventions. The sentence in question came up in a series of NACE recommendations to OSHA about future guidelines, research and outreach.

Jim Koskan of SUPERVALU Inc. and other industry representatives pushed hard for a sentence that questioned anyone's ability to know the cause of an MSD as well as the effectiveness of any ergonomic intervention, arousing the opposition of several other committee members.

After hours of debate, the committee finally agreed to the following compromise, proposed by a non-committee member, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health representative Thomas Waters:

"Although the exact cause of a specific MSD may not be known, and the precise effectiveness of an intervention may not be predictable, the objective of ergonomics is to reduce, to a practical minimum, the demands of doing the work by controlling these exposures."

While Henshaw and Kerk praised NACE's accomplishments in general terms, Bill Kojola, an industrial hygienist with the AFL-CIO was unable to find any concrete committee achievements. "This was a diversion," he asserted, "that has done nothing to improve conditions where workers are suffering from MSDs."

The research gaps NACE identified at its final meeting "ploughed no new ground," according to Kojola because the National Academy of Sciences recognized the same issues in a previous study. He also pointed out that despite NACE's recommendation 10 months ago that the agency produce ergonomic guidelines for 16 high hazard sectors, OSHA has not committed to producing a single new set of industry-specific guidelines.

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