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Surging Ergonomic Citations Draw Industry Ire

Until recently, OSHA's pledge to pursue a vigorous enforcement policy against companies with ergonomic hazards struck critics as an empty promise. Federal OSHA did not issue a single ergonomic citation under the general duty clause (GDC) in 2001 or 2002.

Now it is industry representatives who are crying foul. With the year scarcely half over, OSHA has already come out with 10 GDC ergonomic citations.

More alarming still, says Jonathan Eisen of the National Coalition on Ergonomics, the agency appears to be targeting companies with excellent ergonomic programs, despite OSHA Administrator John Henshaw's promise that companies with active ergonomic programs would not be inspected.

"Henshaw said many times companies making a good faith effort should have no fear," complains Eisen. "Obviously there's a disconnect between what Washington is saying and what the field offices are doing." Eisen points to OSHA's citation of SUPERVALU Inc.'s Missouri warehouse facility as an example of the agency targeting a company with an effective ergonomic program.

Compounding industry fears of an enforcement strategy that no longer takes "yes" for an answer, SUPERVALU's corporate director of risk control, James Koskan, sits on the agency's own National Advisory Committee on Ergonomics (NACE).

"We're a little dumbfounded by the citation," commented Koskan. "I'm deemed one of the nation's [ergonomics] experts, and I would have chosen this particular facility as the poster child for what we're doing right. Apparently OSHA sees things differently."

Koskan said the company would contest the citation.

"We value the contributions of Mr. Koskan to the work of NACE, and we acknowledge that SUPERVALU has a good corporate ergonomics program," said an OSHA spokesperson. "However, in this case, the particular establishment in question did not have an effective ergonomics program in place and was cited for ergonomics hazards."

Chris Tampio, director of employment policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, echoed Eisen's complaints about OSHA's policy.

"I worry about what they will do next," said Tampio. "Will they go to Chrysler, Ford and GM and try to change their programs too?" After examining OSHA's detailed abatement suggestions, Eisen and Tampio argued that OSHA appears to be forcing companies to comply de facto with the rescinded Clinton ergonomics regulation.

OSHA suggested SUPERVALU use the following abatement methods:

  • Worksite analysis to recognize musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) hazards;
  • Medical management and accurate recordkeeping of MSDs;
  • Training and education for exposed employees;
  • Hazard prevention and control, e.g.: engineering, work practice and administrative controls, including the elimination of lifting items that weigh over 40 lbs.

Tampio added a second example of OSHA citing and fining a company that is doing "due diligence" in ergonomics: Tri-State Coca Cola Bottling Co.

"We have addressed ergonomics within our safety and health program for at least five years," explained company spokesperson Ashlie Brown. Although Tri-State lacks a stand-alone formal ergonomics program, she said the company provides two hours of safety training annually to its employees.

The fines OSHA is levying in its ergonomic citations are modest, according to Jackie Nowell, director of occupational safety and health at the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. The figure for SUPERVALU is typical: $12,600.

What ties the two citations worrying NCE and NAM together is both have to do with material handling tasks, the lifting of heavy loads within a warehouse and off delivery trucks.

"I have to believe Anheuser-Busch and other companies that deliver products by truck are worried OSHA will knock on their door," explained Nowell. "It's a big problem, and big money to fix it."

On this point, Eisen and Nowell seem to agree. "We are not pleased with some of the abatement measures as they could be extraordinarily expensive," commented Eisen. "The fines are in some respects immaterial."

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