OSHA’s ergonomics standard may have met a swift death in Washington, but employers can still put some of its ideas to work. Designed to protect workers from repetitive-motion and work station-related injuries, the standards served instead to inflame the passions of business and industry leaders whose companies would bear the burden of compliance and cost.
The focus on the repeal may leave employers feeling as if they are “off the hook” as far as providing ergonomics solutions in their workplaces, but such is not the case, according to Dr. Pat Patterson, an Iowa State University engineering professor specializing in ergonomics, workplace design and rehabilitation engineering.
“I felt the ergonomics rule, as it was written, was a bit heavy-handed, so I can understand why businesses lobbied to have it removed,” Patterson says. “But the problems it addressed are still there,” he cautions. “It is my feeling that some sort of formalized regulations will be put in place in the future, but it’s hard to say what form they will take. Some businesses are already doing a good job of addressing ergonomics themselves, and that can have an impact on how strict the future regulations might be.”
Patterson’s point is punctuated by recent studies showing a continuing trend of decreasing severe job-related injuries including the musculoskeletal disorders covered by the proposed standards. In fact, a five-year Bureau of Labor Statistics study reported carpal tunnel syndrome cases dropped nearly 36 percent between 1993 and 1998.
When President George W. Bush repealed the new standard, he said: “The rule would have applied a bureaucratic one-size-fits-all solution to a broad range of employers and workers — not good government at work. There needs to be a balance between — and an understanding of — the costs and benefits associated with federal regulations.”Bush urged Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to devise a cheaper way of addressing workplace safety.
Flawed Rule, Good Advice
Employers can make the most of the current situation by using the failed standards as a framework in formulating a policy that helps reduce the risk of injury to workers and cost to the company. Industry experts, like those in EMC's Risk Improvement Department, can help by surveying businesses and working in partnership to reduce risks.
At their essence, the concepts and philosophies upon which the OSHA standards were written are sound — vigilance toward workplace safety, teamwork between management and labor to identify and address workplace risk, and documentation of incidents and their resolution. Without the heavy burden of administrative and financial responsibility that was the basis of the defeated standard, employers can begin, or in most cases, continue the development of meaningful ergonomics policies.
“These were really excellent ideas,“Dr. Patterson says. “The rule was good in principle, but there has to be some give and take for the regulations to be effective. What employers can do, though, is use the standards as advice on how to put a good ergonomics policy together.“
A Billion-Dollar Pain
Work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs) account for 34 percent of all lost workday injuries and cost industry some $15 to $20 billion in workers' compensation costs each year, according to OSHA figures. Indirect cost, including lost time, damage to tools and equipment, hiring costs for replacement workers, legal expenses and possible OSHA fines may run as high as $45 to $60 billion per year.
By seeking professional assistance in developing sound ergonomics practices, business owners can avoid incidents that are potentially devastating to company well-being. But more than that, a good program helps employees work more effectively and efficiently, and keeps them safe while they perform the duties for which they were hired.
Ergonomics can even impact your company’s reputation. Poorly designed workstations can result in lower quality products made by workers who are physically fatigued. Presenting an inconsistent product to important customers is a risk no company can afford to take.
Workable Workplace Solutions
Efforts as minor as adjusting the height of work surfaces, varying tasks for workers and encouraging short breaks can go a long way toward worker safety. For other companies, solutions might mean changing to a more ergonomically safe tool design or using vibration-reducing wraps. Some employers find it most cost-effective to redesign the process and workflow completely. For help in assessing your workplace ergonomics quotient, ask your agent to connect you with EMC’s Risk Improvement Department.