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Spring 2001 Volume 12

Feature Articles

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When President George W. Bush repealed the new standard, he said: “The rule would have applied a bureaucratic one-size-fits-all solution to a broad range of employers and workers — not good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.

If last summer’s experience is any guide, commercial air conditioning systems will again be at risk of failure this cooling season.

Most air conditioning problems result from electrical failure of the driving motor or mechanical parts breaking in the compressor. Many of these failures take place at system start-up or early in the cooling season. Approximately one-third of all failures occur between April and June. Many of these failures could be prevented with a thorough inspection at start-up and regular maintenance throughout the cooling season.

In addition, many buildings were not designed to handle the air conditioning load imposed by today’s businesses. Many office buildings, for instance, were built before personal computers were in widespread use. Now hundreds of PCs generate a tremendous amount of heat, adding to the strain on cooling systems. Thus, it doesn’t take a severe heat wave to trigger a breakdown.

So before the temperatures start to soar, be sure your air conditioning system can handle the load.

All trailers and semi-trailers manufactured prior to December 1, 1993, which have an overall width of 80 inches or more and a gross vehicle weight of 10,001 pounds or more must be equipped with retroreflective sheeting or an array of reflex reflectors.

This does not include trailers that are manufactured exclusively for use as offices or dwellings, pole trailers, and trailers transported in a driveaway-towaway operation.

All trailers and semi-trailers must have the additional reflective equipment on the trucks by June 1, 2001.

Single-unit trucks (straight trucks) are not included in the final rule and therefore, do not need to meet the reflective equipment requirements. All trailers built after 1993 should have these devices and shouldn't need to be retrofitted.

Metal halide lighting, the type of lighting in commercial/industrial facilities, could unnecessarily increase the potential for fire and property loss, particularly if it is improperly utilized. You have undoubtedly seen these types of lights, often in large, open areas with high ceilings such as warehouses and manufacturing facilities; because they are generally more energy efficient for their wattage than other light sources.

Normally the failure of a light fixture or lamp, means that the lamp fails to illuminate when it is energized; however, on occasion, the lamp can fail violently or rupture, fracturing the arc tube and expelling hot quartz fragments, with the potential for ignition of nearby combustible materials. Major manufacturers of metal halide lighting have issued product specification literature and bulletins warning consumers of the possibility of violent failure of these lamps. Many of the manufacturers list these warnings on the product packaging itself.

The possibility of lamp failure increases significantly as it approaches and exceeds its rated life. Obviously not all failures are violent, and one manufacturer suggests that less than one violent rupture occurs in 100,000 failures, however, when you consider the number of metal halide lamps and fixtures in service, the number of potential fires is quite significant.

Some, if not most, manufacturers also produce lamps that have an internal arc tube shield, or containment barrier, of tempered or borosilicate glass. The barrier is designed to resist the rupture of the quartz arc tube and contain the hot fragments within the outer bulb. These lamps will indicate on the packaging that they are “suitable for use in open fixtures.” Lamps that do not have this internal arc tube shield, or similar means of containment, will state that they “must be operated in a suitably enclosed fixture.”

A properly installed lamp, suitable for an open fixture, can accidentally be replaced with a lamp requiring installation in an enclosed fixture. Be sure you are using the right type of lamps for your application.

An employee's sore right shoulder is blamed on damage suffered from driving the company truck and a worker's compensation claim is filed on his behalf. The following weekend, the injured employee is the right-handed pitcher in a fast-pitch softball game.

Workplace insurance fraud like this happens everyday. While you may occasionally hear of a grand scam amounting to millions of dollars on the evening news, the majority of cost attributed to fraudulent insurance claims can be traced back to individuals or groups of people working together to “cash in” on insurance.

Insurance criminals often justify their actions by claiming no one gets hurt. However, on a business level, non-injury fraud hurts your company’s profitability because the money that covers fraudulent claims has to be recouped through in-creased premiums paid by honest customers, as well as the time and resources your company may have to use to fight fraudulent claims.

Like shoplifting, insurance fraud is a crime of volume: a lot of people stealing what they consider a little bit. The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) estimates property and casualty-based insurance crimes total more than $30 billion annually. Across the board, insurance fraud increases insurance rates, raises taxes and inflates consumer prices.

Remember, insurance fraud is a crime, but what it can do to your profits and your employees’ paychecks is even more criminal! So if you or your employees suspect workplace insurance fraud, report it. This includes worker’s compensation fraud, personal injury schemes (slip and fall), arson- for-profit, falsifying theft reports, exaggerated claims and disaster fraud.

If you or your employees believe they have been the victim of insurance fraud, or suspect someone of perpetrating fraud, call EMC Insurance Companies’ fraud hotline at 1-800-773-2682.

OSHA has announced guidelines to assist inspectors in enforcing powered industrial truck operator training requirements. You can expect compliance officers to

  • Inquire about your method of training and evaluating operator performance.
  • Check if all training is conducted by a person who has the knowledge, training and experience to train operators and evaluate their competence.
  • Determine if you’ve trained employees in the applicable topics listed in OSHA standard 1910.178(I)(3).
  • Determine if your operators have received training in the operating instructions, warnings, or precautions listed in the operator's manual for the type of vehicle they use.
  • Review the use of seat belts where applicable under the general duty clause of the OSHA Act in accordance with the October 9, 1996 Seat Belt Enforcement Memorandum. (OSHA’s enforcement policy on the use of seat belts on powered industrial trucks is that employers are obligated to require operators of powered industrial trucks that are equipped with operator restraint devices, including seat belts, to use the devices.)
  • When possible, observe powered industrial truck operations to determine if trucks are being operated safely, and conduct employer/employee interviews to verify training program implementation.
  • Determine whether the employer has certified that all required training and evaluations have been conducted. The requirement for certification and the reasons for the requirement will be explained to the employer and the action noted in the case file. The employer will also be informed of possible penalties for subsequent violations.

In a study by the National Academy of Sciences released earlier this year, back pain and other musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) were found to be linked to particular jobs.

The study concluded that there is a strong relationship between back disorders and jobs where workers manually lift materials, frequently bend and twist their bodies, or experience whole-body vibration from motor vehicles. A rapid work pace, monotonous work, low job satisfaction, little decision-making power and high levels of job stress are also associated with back disorders.

The report also found that jobs particularly stressful to men include construction laborers, carpenters and operators of industrial truck or tractor equipment. For women, the highest-risk jobs are in nursing or nursing support, and in domestic or commercial cleaning or janitorial work.

Storms cannot be prevented, but their effects can be minimized by proper planning. Inspect and repair your roof and drainage systems and review your storm emergency procedures.

Studies indicate that companies with a well-planned fleet safety program reduce accident exposures, vehicle maintenance costs and workers’ compensation costs.

Hurricane Products of Valencia, California, is voluntarily recalling about 20,000 propane regulators manufactured by Chen Fong Enterprise Co., Ltd. of Taiwan. These regulators can leak propane, which can result in a fire or explosion.

As part of the agreement to obtain bipartisan support for killing the recent OSHA ergonomics standard, the parties agreed to work toward a more reasonable and less expensive standard within the next two years.