OH.com Exclusive Series: OSHA, Ergonomic Guidelines and Expert Opinions: James D. McGlothlin

Former NIOSH ergonomics researcher Jim McGlothlin believes OSHA's voluntary ergonomics guidelines "are a quick way to get companies to put some money into ergonomics."

In this series of articles exclusive to the Web, OH.com asks leading ergonomic experts what they think about OSHA''s voluntary ergonomic guidelines and the course of action they''d like to see the agency take.

What does James D. Jim McGlothlin, Ph.D., think about the voluntary ergonomic guidelines released by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)? Well, says McGlothlin, "something is better than nothing."

Jim McGlothlin knows ergonomics. During his nearly 20-year tenure at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), McGlothlin developed the institute''s first ergonomic program for the Division of Safety Research. The program focused research on reducing acute and chronic injuries in the occupational environment. It also served as a model for an institute-wide ergonomics research program to reduce and prevent injuries in the workplace. Until his retirement from NIOSH, McGlothlin conducted a number of research projects focused on reducing ergonomic injuries.

Now, as an associate professor of industrial hygiene and ergonomics at Purdue University, his job is to develop and direct an ergonomics research program, teach courses in occupational ergonomics to undergraduate and graduate students, serve on student thesis and doctoral committees and publish research findings. (Full disclosure: McGlothlin is a member of Occupational Hazards magazine''s Editorial Board.)

"A number of companies are calling, saying they''ve got musculoskeletal disorders (MSDS) and asking if someone can help them," says McGlothlin. "Guidelines are a quick way to get companies to put some money into ergonomics."

He says that while he was disappointed Congress rescinded the OSHA ergonomic standard, he concedes that in these uncertain economic times, "How much of the economic downturn would have been blamed on the standard?"

McGlothlin points out that voluntary guidelines have served the automotive industry well by reducing injuries, decreasing workers'' compensation costs and improving the quality of work life for employees. "Auto companies know that good ergonomics is good economics," says McGlothlin. "You need to decide how much you''re willing to pay before you decide too much is enough and channel your resources into prevention of injuries."

He adds it''s time the healthcare industry learned that lesson. OSHA announced that its first set of industry-specific guidelines would be directed at the healthcare industry, a move that wins praise from McGlothlin.

"The guys who run those [nursing home] conglomerates are making millions. It''s time they improve the quality of life for healthcare providers," he insists.

OSHA''s four-pronged approach to ergonomics - guidelines, enforcement, compliance assistance and research - will help the government combine its available resources with what companies can do on their end to improve workplace ergonomic conditions, says McGlothlin. He calls the approach "a winning combination."

He approves of the idea that enforcement, under the general duty clause, will be used as a deterrent for those companies that choose not to follow the guidelines. "It will be interesting to see if OSHA comes back with mega fines," muses McGlothlin. "They might use a bigger stick [than we''ve previously seen]."

He agrees with other ergonomic experts interviewed for this series that education - for both employers and OSHA inspectors - is an essential component of the guidelines and enforcement efforts. He suggests looking at three triggers for enforcement:

  • Injury and illness numbers that are out of line with industry standards;
  • The controls, and cost of controls, available to address ergonomic issues;
  • A company''s awareness of the solutions available and its attempts to institute those controls.

"OSHA inspectors can''t just look at numbers of injuries, say, ''This looks bad,'' and slap a fine on them," says McGlothlin.

Research, like that conducted over the years by NIOSH and other organizations, could prove valuable in helping OSHA determine appropriate controls for each industry and define the relationship between certain types of work and job tasks and MSDs.

McGlothlin admits there has been a "disconnect" between the agency whose mission is "to ensure safe and healthful workplaces in America" (OSHA) and the agency charged with "conducting research and making recommendations for the prevention of work-related disease and injury" (NIOSH).

In the past, certain NIOSH directors forged strong alliances with OSHA administrators, while others butted heads. Although NIOSH''s mission is research-based while OSHA''s is enforcement-based, even OSHA administrators with science backgrounds are not immune to experiencing a certain amount animosity in their dealings with NIOSH, McGlothlin reveals.

"When I first came to NIOSH," he remembers, "I met (then-OSHA Administrator) Mort Corn, Ph.D., CSP. I told him I was coming on board at NIOSH. He looked at me - and not in a friendly way, which surprised me, because weren''t we supposed to be working together - and said, ''Tell those NIOSH idiots that when they put together a [research] document, they should perforate the pages, so I can tear out half the crap.''"

McGlothlin hopes that won''t be a problem this time around. "If OSHA and NIOSH are on the same wave length, then they can leverage what is learned by research into creating safer workplaces. [OSHA Administrator] John Henshaw made mention of working closer with NIOSH, and I hope that happens," adds McGlothlin.

by Sandy Smith ([email protected])

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