The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) unveiled its long-awaited ergonomics standard proposal Monday (Nov. 22), less than 72 hours after Congress finished work on the agency's 2000 budget and left town for the holidays.
Flanked by two workers who said ergonomics injuries had destroyed their careers and changed their lives forever, Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and OSHA Administrator Charles N. Jeffress said at today's press briefing that the proposed standard would protect workers and be good for business.
"This is the most-flexible standard OSHA has ever proposed," Jeffress said. According to OSHA's official estimates, the proposal would save U.S businesses a total of $9.1 billion, while costing $4.2 billion to implement, he added.
The proposed program standard relies on a practical, flexible approach that reflects industry best practices and focuses on jobs where problems are severe and solutions well-understood, according to OSHA. It would require general industry employers to address ergonomics for manual handling or manufacturing production jobs.
Employers would need to fix other jobs where employees experience work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs).
The standard would require an employer to implement a full ergonomics program if one or more WMSDs occurs. OSHA contends that most employers in general industry will incur minimal costs. Employers who need to correct problems will spend an average of $150 per year per work station fixed.
Every year, 1.8 million U.S. workers experience WMSDs from overexertion or repetitive motion, according to OSHA. One-third of those injuries about 600,000 result in lost workdays. These injuries cost U.S. businesses between $15 billion and $20 billion annually in workers' compensation costs.
Employers would have to correct injury-causing workplace conditions that require repetitive motion, overexertion or awkward posture. The injuries to muscles, nerves, ligaments and tendons include such problems as carpal tunnel syndrome, back pain and tendinitis.
"Work-related musculoskeletal disorders such as back injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome are the more prevalent, most expensive and most preventable workplace injuries in the country," Herman said. "Real people are suffering real injuries that can disable their bodies and destroy their lives. The good news is that real solutions are available."
To back up this claim, OSHA invited two workers to tell their stories. Walter Frazier worked for nine years hanging about 26 birds a minute on a fast-moving conveyor belt in a chicken processing plant. Over the years, Frazier developed lower-back pain and severe chronic arthritis in his hands and shoulders. Last year, unable to lift more than 20 pounds or perform many household chores, he had the first of three surgeries to repair his damaged hands. He has been out of work for nearly seven months this year because of his injuries.
Frazier said he has lost more than wages from his injury. "My whole life away from work has been changed, and not for the better," he said, adding that his co-workers on the line suffer similar disabilities. "We all hurt like hell, and we always will."
Beth Piknick, a registered nurse, fought back tears as she told how lifting patients into their beds ruined her career and left her permanently disabled. She cannot stand for long periods of time without support, cannot lift or do repetitive bending motions, can only sit in certain chairs and is unable to do many recreational activities.
"One of the worst moments in this whole experience was when I learned that my injury could have been prevented," Piknick said. Lifting devices are commercially available, but her hospital chose not to buy them, she added.
Women disproportionately suffer some of the most severe WMSDs not because their bodies are more vulnerable to WMSDs, but because a large number of women work in jobs associated with heavy lifting, awkward postures and repetitive motion. Women suffer 70 percent of carpal tunnel syndrome cases and 62 percent of tendinitis cases that are serious enough to warrant time off work, according to OSHA. Each year, more than 100,000 women experience work-related back injuries that cause them to miss work.
OSHA has pursued the development of an ergonomics standard since 1990, when it first established guidelines to help workers in the meatpacking industry. Ergonomics is the fit between the worker and work.
OSHA will take comments on the proposal until Feb. 1, 2000. Informal public hearings will begin Feb. 22, 2000. Free CD-ROMs or printed copies with the regulatory text, the preamble, the complete regulatory analysis and the full discussion of health effects will be available at OSHA's Web site, www.osha.gov, or by calling (202) 693-1888.
Look for in-depth coverage of what the proposal might mean for you and your workplace, as well as additional comments on both sides of the debate, in the coming days at occupationalhazards.com. Also, don't miss Occupational Hazards' January 2000 issue for more details. For a free subscription, select the "Subscriptions" button at the left of this Web page.