The announcement of voluntary ergonomics guidelines announced last week by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has two of the major occupational safety and health organizations singing the blues.
The American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) released a statement this week saying it stands by its position that a standard is needed and would be preferable to guidelines, adding, "it is obvious that an ergonomics standard is not going to be enacted anytime soon."
The organization calls the guidelines "a good first step" and says it is pleased that OSHA is seeking out research gaps and working to further develop the science in this area.
The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) takes a slightly different stand on the issue. ASSE President Eddie Greer, CSP, said, "We have been on record in calling for the need for a reasonable, workable ergonomics standard focused on the particular problems faced by workers in different industries and work settings, from the factory floor to the growing percentage of American workers in offices."
He added that while ASSE is pleased that the federal government sees the need to be proactive in this area, "We believe there is still a strong need to continue to explore regulatory approaches to this issue. Our concern is that, without a standard in place, the guidelines may result in interpretations that can only be addressed through the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission and litigation."
He suggested that safety managers and employers look to the voluntary consensus standards process - such as those created by the American National Standards Institute Z365 Standards Committee - to help benchmark OSHA''s activities.
"Developing core guidelines with specifics for business segments such as service sector applications that include healthcare and offices will benefit many workers," said Henry B. Lick, president of AIHA.
"Even though the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported a decline in the number of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), ergonomics is a continuing concern," he added. "The National Academy of Science has confirmed that the science indicates an immediate need to address the issue of ergonomics in the workplace."
He noted that some employers have adopted the concept of "quick fix" as an inexpensive and easy way to correct problems. Specific guidelines from OSHA can take this one step further and provide employers with additional concepts and ideas that truly work long-term. He notes that it will take all four components of the OSHA plan to be successful - guidelines, enforcement, compliance assistance and research.
"Good job design considering ergonomic and human factors will result in improved employee health and increased morale, productivity, product quality, and the ultimate reduction of healthcare costs which will benefit employers, workers and the economy," said Lick.
Here is OSHA''s four-pronged, comprehensive approach to ergonomics. Specific details have not been announced. This information came from OSHA''s Web site at www.osha.gov.
- OSHA will develop industry-or-task-specific guidelines for a number of industries based on current incidence rates and available information about effective and feasible solutions.
- This work will take into account guidelines and best practices already developed, including OSHA''s own OSHA will encourage other industries to develop ergonomic guidelines.
- The goal is to encourage industry to implement measures as quickly as possible to reduce work-related MSDs. OSHA expects to start releasing guidelines in selected industries in six months.
- OSHA''s primary goal is the reduction of injuries and illnesses in the Employers must keep their workplaces free from recognized serious hazards under the OSH Act''s General Duty Clause. This includes ergonomic hazards.
- OSHA will not focus its enforcement efforts on employers who have implemented effective ergonomic programs or who are making good-faith efforts to reduce ergonomic hazards.
- OSHA will conduct inspections for ergonomic hazards and issue citations under the General Duty Clause and issue ergonomic hazard alert letters where appropriate. OSHA will conduct follow-up inspections or investigations within 12 months of certain employers who receive ergonomic hazard alert letters.
- OSHA has announced a National Emphasis Program in the nursing home industry to guide inspections of nursing homes, and to focus significant efforts on addressing ergonomic hazards related to patient lifting.
- OSHA will conduct specialized training of appropriate staff on ergonomic hazards and abatement methods and designate 10 regional ergonomic coordinators and involve them in enforcement and outreach.
- OSHA will address ergonomic hazards in its national emphasis program, notifications, and inspections of employers in the Site Specific Targeting program, and will offer assistance to those employers in this group who have a high percentage of MSDs.
Outreach and Assistance
- OSHA will provide assistance to businesses, particularly small businesses, and help them proactively address ergonomic issues in the workplace. OSHA will also provide advice and training on the voluntary guidelines and implementation of a successful ergonomics program.
- OSHA will target its FY 2002 training grants to address ergonomics and other agency priorities, including support for the development of ergonomic training materials and the direct training of employers and employees to promote a better understanding of ergonomic risks and the prevention of MSDs.
- OSHA will develop a complete and comprehensive set of compliance assistance tools, including Internet-based training and information, to support understanding of guidelines and how to proactively define and address ergonomic problems.
- OSHA will provide courses at its 12 nonprofit educational partner organizations, known as Education Centers, for private sector and other federal agency personnel, and will develop and utilize distance learning to make training materials available to a wider audience.
- OSHA will focus on developing new partnerships to implement and highlight the value and effectiveness of voluntary ergonomic guidelines and will use its existing partnership programs to facilitate the development of guidelines. Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP) sites will be used to help model effective ergonomic solutions. VPP volunteers will mentor other worksites, and provide training assistance.
- OSHA will also develop new recognition programs to highlight the achievements of worksites with exemplary or novel approaches to ergonomics.
- As part of the Department of Labor''s cross-agency commitment to protecting immigrant workers, especially those with limited English proficiency, the new ergonomics plan includes a specialized focus to help Hispanic and other immigrant workers, many of whom work in industries with high ergonomic hazard rates.
- While there is a large body of research available on ergonomics, there are many areas where additional research is necessary, including gaps identified by the National Academy of Science (NAS). OSHA will serve as a catalyst to encourage researchers to design studies in areas where additional information would be helpful.
- OSHA will charter an advisory committee that will be authorized to, among other things, identify gaps in research related to the application of ergonomics and ergonomic principles to the workplace. This advisory committee will report its findings to the Assistant Secretary and to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).
- OSHA will work closely with NIOSH and through the National Occupational Research Agenda process to encourage research in needed areas.
by Sandy Smith ([email protected])