Controversial Workplace Ergonomics Standard Released

OSHA's controversial ergonomics program standard, released today,\r\nwill be effective Jan. 16, unless opponents can hold up\r\nimplementation through court challenges.

A far-reaching federal regulation aimed at reducing job-related injuries caused by repetitive motions has been issued by OSHA.

OSHA''s controversial ergonomics program standard, released today, will be effective Jan. 16, unless opponents can hold up implementation through court challenges.

Employers must begin to distribute information on the standard to employees and begin receiving and responding to reports of injuries no later than Oct. 14, 2001.

All general-industry employers, some 6 million workplaces, will be subject to the standard. It does not apply to employers in construction, maritime, agriculture or railroads.

OSHA issued the standard, 29 CFR 1910.900, to reduce musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) developed by workers whose jobs involve repetitive motions, force, awkward postures, contact stress and vibration.

The principle behind ergonomics is that by fitting the job to the worker through adjusting a workstation, rotating workers between jobs or using mechanical assists, MDSs can be reduced and, ultimately, eliminated.

The rule requires employers to inform workers about common MSDs, MSD signs and symptoms and the importance of early reporting. When a worker reports signs or symptoms of an MSD, the employer must determine whether the injury meets the definition of an MSD incident -- a work-related MSD that requires medical treatment beyond first aid, assignment to a light-duty job or temporary removal from work to recover, or work-related MSD signs or symptoms that last for seven or more consecutive days.

An expert on ergonomics issues suggests that companies without an ergonomics program should be proactive and formulate a plan for dealing with the standard.

Charlie Kopin, director of off-site services for Industrial Health Care (IHC), Connecticut''s largest occupational health care provider, said that one of the easiest steps a company can take is to appoint a person to be responsible for ergonomics training and review.

Most large companies have a safety committee, and Kopin said one of that committee''s members could be appointed to concentrate on ergonomics. That person should also work on establishing a company policy on ergonomics and help employees report possible problems.

The safety committee should also make ergonomics one of its ongoing concentration areas, Kopin said. All work areas should be monitored for problems, and modifications should be made if some are discovered.

More importantly, once changes are made, the committee should make sure it checks back to ensure those modifications are effective.

Kopin said nothing makes a problem worse than a modification that isn''t correctly adhered to because workers were not properly informed or educated. "The easiest way to treat ergonomic problems is to prevent them from happening," he said. "Education is the best prevention, and this can be done by providing employees with a handbook that discusses ergonomic risk factors like posture and repetition as well as signs and symptoms of MSDs."

One of the biggest concerns for companies is what may happen once an MSD is diagnosed in an employee, noted Kopin.

Companies with injuries should perform reviews of the workplace to eliminate or reduce MSD hazards. But this re-engineering is raising red flags because of the possible cost involved.

"OSHA says it anticipates a cost of $150 per workstation for ergonomic adjustments, so it''s easy to see why a company with 300 employees is concerned," he said. "I think it is important to remember that any cost associated with ergonomic fixes now will pay dividends in the long run by eliminating down time and injuries."

by Todd Nighswonger

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