NIOSH: Science Supports Need for Ergo Standard

Agency testifies at OSHA ergonomics hearing that "the most comprehensive review" of MSDs literature reveals need for standard.

There is a solid foundation of research to support ergonomics rulemaking, according to testimony from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) that ended the first week of public hearings on OSHA's proposed standard.

At the Washington, D.C. hearing on Friday, a panel of NIOSH experts headed by Lawrence Fine spent the afternoon answering tough questions about the NIOSH's conclusion and the science upon which it is based.

At the core of NIOSH's position is a 1997 report referred to in its testimony as "the most comprehensive review" of the literature on occupational musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) to date. The study was produced by a team of NIOSH researchers who systematically reviewed and analyzed more than 2,000 studies. They focused on what they determined were the 600 best before concluding that there is a clear relationship between specific workplace hazards and specific MSDs. One of the central disputes of the ergonomics rulemaking debate is determining to what extent work-related activities cause MSDs.

Business groups spent much of the afternoon casting doubt on the reliability and objectivity of the NIOSH study, Musculoskeletal Disorders and Workplace Factors. Labor representatives asked questions designed to shore up the scientific value of the study, but they asked other questions intended to show there are reasons for making the OSHA proposed standard more protective of workers.

"The study can't be replicated," charged Wayne Schrader, an attorney representing United Parcel Service and Anheiser-Busch. Schrader was one of several employer interlocutors who queried the panel on its methodology and results.

Schrader said he was trying to determine how NIOSH selected the studies they focused on and how they weighted them. Because NIOSH used qualitative judgments in its selection criteria, Schrader and David Sarvadi, representing the National Coalition on Ergonomics, argued that other scientists looking at the same data could arrive at different conclusions.

In addition, NIOSH did not accord greater value to "prospective cohort" studies that Schrader said are considered more reliable in determining causation than the cross sectional studies NIOSH also used.

Fine got a chance to defend NIOSH's work when he responded to a question from AFL-CIO's Peg Seminario about how the science supporting the ergonomics standard stacks up against research used as the basis for other OSHA standards. "I can't think of any other situation in which there has been such a large quantity and, I think, overall quality of information," he said of the ergonomics data.

Labor then went on the offensive with a line of questioning that focused on the controversial one-incident trigger provision of OSHA's standard.

William Kojola, an AFL-CIO industrial hygienist, asked Fine if it is not the traditional approach of industrial hygiene to remove hazards before workers are exposed, rather than waiting until after the onset of injury or illness. "We certainly advocate attempting to identify high-risk jobs before illnesses [occur]," he replied.

The hearings are scheduled to continue in Washington for three more weeks, before moving to Chicago on April 11.

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