Gary Orr: Get Employers Involved
In the late 1990's, Gary Orr was team leader of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) effort to write an ergonomics standard. He now works as a consultant and is based in Alexandria, Va. This Q&A was conducted by James Nash, Occupational Hazards' Washington editor.
OH: You've been involved in previous OSHA ergonomics efforts. What's new about OSHA's most recent voluntary plan?
Orr: Back in 1996, we [OSHA] were prohibited from writing a standard, so we looked at the same things OSHA is looking at now: guidelines, outreach, enforcement and research. The difference is that now they're going to try to get parties involved and write best practices. But how will they sell this to people?
OH: You helped write the ergonomic standard Congress nullified last year. What do you think about OSHA's recent non-regulatory approach?
Orr: OSHA has a limited number of tools that it can use with employers. If regulation is not on the table then education and enforcement need to be emphasized. The agency is hoping that if they show people how simple it is to solve these problems, people will solve them.
OH: That sounds reasonable. Is there any reason to believe this approach won't work?
Orr: The problem is that many industries already have information about ergonomic risk factors. If companies haven't done anything yet, what can OSHA do to persuade them to start now?
OH: Does this mean the real question is how to engage employers who aren't already engaged?
Orr: I think so. If the action matches the talk, then employers will respond. I suspect many employers will say, "I'll wait and see if I can get by with what I've got." This isn't like a chemical spill where you have to clean it up immediately.
OH: But if repetitive motion injuries are as costly to employers as OSHA and ergonomic experts like you say, why wouldn't employers jump on this?
Orr: There's a lot of confusion about work-relatedness, so a lot of employers say, "I don't want to open up Pandora's box." Employers fear they could get saddled with non-work-related things. The biggest problem for medium-sized employers is: How do I decide if employees need help, or just want something new, expensive and unnecessary?
OH: Are there ways to help employers with this question?
Orr: This is not a trivial question, but it is an answerable question. OSHA had a checklist as part of the [nullified] standard, and Washington State OSHA has developed a checklist to determine work-relatedness.
OH: How will we know if employers are becoming engaged in trying to solve ergonomic problems?
Orr: In lieu of a survey, you're looking at anecdotal information. Non-reporting of musculoskeletal disorders can skew the data. I suspect many employers are waiting to see just how tough OSHA is going to be on enforcement. Because it takes four to six months from the first inspection visit to develop an ergonomics case, we probably won't know until the end of the year how effective the new enforcement effort is going to be.
OH: Are there any specific cases to watch for early signs of whether OSHA is serious about enforcing ergonomics under the General Duty Clause?
Orr: I'd keep an eye on the Pilgrim's Pride case in Lufkin, Texas. Back in February, the United Food and Commercial Workers filed a formal complaint with OSHA on ergonomics under the General Duty Clause. My sense is that OSHA will only select strong cases to pursue. (See related Occupationalhazards.com article "Union Files Complaint with OSHA over Ergonomics.")
OH: Are there specific industries you would expect to be targeted for vigorous enforcement?
Orr: Wherever you have a lot of manual handling, such as in medical care facilities, warehouses, beverage delivery companies and courier services. Beverage delivery is tough, because there is no one workplace. The meatpacking and auto industries already have a lot of programs in place, while the garment and sewing industries are moving overseas.
OH: Does OSHA have the personnel with the proper training to do effective enforcement and to write guidelines?
Orr: That remains to be seen. Every region now has one ergonomics coordinator. This person does compliance assistance and enforcement. Some are certified ergonomists, but I don't think they all are. It is important to be certified, because while experience by itself is helpful, there may be gaps in what one has seen. If you're certified it means you have a broad range of knowledge. I know that [former OSHA Administrator Charles] Jeffress wanted qualified ergonomics inspectors in every area office. If OSHA is going to be serious about enforcement, I think they will want to move in that direction.