Just when you thought you had heard the last of a federal ergonomics initiative after President George W. Bush repealed the Clinton Administration measure in early 2001, the issue has popped up once again. Opponents to a wide-reaching federally mandated ergonomics measure don’t necessarily feel the issue is wrong. They just don’t see a “one-size-fits-all” federal initiative as the right approach, according to Tim Springer, founder and president of Human Environment Research Organization (HERO) Inc., Geneva, IL.
“I fully support the notion of addressing repetitive stress, vibrations, strained posture, excessive loads, and eliminating them on the job,” says Springer, who holds a Ph.D. in ergonomics from the University of South Dakota. “That doesn’t change the fact that some people will show symptoms if none of the conditions are present, and others will show none if all of the conditions are present. Right now, we have this laundry list of symptoms thrown into this bucket called cumulative trauma disorders.” For this reason, Springer says federally mandated action is premature.
“Until we get enough medical and scientific evidence that allows us to deal with this, we’re in the whiplash syndrome sort of thing,” adds Springer. “We can’t tell who will get carpal tunnel syndrome and who won’t. You can strap twins to a computer until one gets cumulative trauma disorder, but we can’t give you a probability that the other one will, too.”
Since President Bush repealed the original rule, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been under pressure to adopt a new ergonomics rule. But, as a whole, the government has continued to move from the sweeping regulations that labor unions, Democrats, and even some moderate Republicans have demanded.
The rules approved by the Clinton Administration in December 2000 would have required businesses to change workstations to reduce injuries and also compensate injured workers in some cases. In early April, Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao unveiled a comprehensive, voluntary ergonomics standards program.
“Our goal is to help workers by reducing ergonomic injuries in the shortest possible timeframe,” Chao says. “This plan is a major improvement over the rejected old rule because it will prevent ergonomics injuries before they occur and reach a much larger number of at-risk workers.”
Facets of the plan include:
A crackdown on “bad actors” by coordinating inspections with a legal strategy for successful prosecution, with special emphasis on industries with serious ergonomic problems.
Compliance assistance tools to help workplaces reduce and prevent ergonomic injuries. Tools include specialized training and information on guidelines and the implementation of successful ergonomics programs.
Specialized focus to help immigrant workers, many who work in industries with high ergonomic hazard rates.
Formation of a national advisory committee, which will advise OSHA on research gaps. The committee will consist of 15 members who will serve two-year terms.
Occupational Safety and Health Administrator John Henshaw stated that his agency is working on developing industry and task-specific guidelines to reduce and prevent ergonomic injuries, often called musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), that occur in the workplace. OSHA expects to begin releasing guidelines ready for application in selected industries this year, including nursing homes, retail grocery stores, and the poultry processing industry. OSHA will also encourage other businesses and industries to immediately develop additional guidelines of their own.
In June, the Democrat-controlled Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee narrowly passed a proposal (S. 2184) sponsored by Sen. John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat, that requires the U.S. Department of Labor to reissue a new ergonomic standard within two years. Breaux, an opponent of the original Clinton-era measure, has commented that OSHA’s new approach is too weak and diluted. He introduced the bill in April in response to the Department of Labor’s program.
The standard proposed under the bill would cover all industries where there are “economically and technologically feasible measures to control these hazards” and make clear what employers are required to do and when. It also exempts employers from responsibility for injuries that occur outside of the workplace and it does not expand state workers’ compensation laws.
The 11-10 vote along party lines reflected the issue’s highly divisive nature and its ability to perpetuate ongoing debate in the Senate all summer. The vote also attached the bill as a rider to appropriations legislation rather than making it a standalone measure on the Senate floor.
On July 19, the Senate Appropriations Committee squelched an attempt to add the provision to fiscal year 2003 Labor Department appropriations when it declined to adopt language mandating that OSHA promulgate a new federal rule on ergonomics. Instead, the committee provided $2 million in discretionary funds that OSHA could use should the agency decide to promulgate a new rule.
“It’s become a game of political hot potato,” Springer says. “You’ll see that it will have very little impact on most businesses and working people. It is creating a compliance and enforcement kind of thing that only addresses the most egregious issues of Simon LeGree management.”
Springer believes most companies are aware of what causes cumulative trauma injuries and have begun to make adjustments. Changes, however, cannot be sweeping within an organization because each injury is unique to an individual; hence, the cry that one-size-does-not-fit-all in a rule, in a workstation, in a solution.
Beyond the Workplace
When Springer visits a company to investigate an ergonomics-related complaint, he not only looks at the workstation and the employee’s tasks, he often asks the individual to fill out a life activities inventory. Contrary to popular wisdom, not all cumulative trauma disorders occur on the job.
Springer once investigated a case where a worker complained of constant elbow pain. He couldn’t find any problems with her tasks or work environment. However, during the evaluation she pulled out a tennis bag. Springer asked her how frequently she played, and she told him at least five days a week.
In addition to ailing tennis players, he has also encountered cross-stitch enthusiasts, woodcarvers, and even a woman who had severe back pain from lifting her disabled daughter on a daily basis. “They don’t call it cumulative trauma for nothing,” he says. “You need to look at a person’s entire life to see what is contributing to the symptoms.”
Employers should do preventive maintenance in work areas, according to Springer, noting, for example, workstations that can be adapted to employee’s different height requirements. “How many people would buy a car where the seat is bolted in one place?” he asks. Ignore the brouhaha that ergonomics costs money and make some simple changes that benefit both you and your employees, Springer advises. Compared to the costs of workplace injuries and employee downtime, ergonomic workplaces are cost effective.
In a recent case, several employees filed a class action suit for cumulative trauma disorder against a western Baby Bell that didn’t address ergonomic concerns. The employees won the case, and, based on all the costs the employer paid in legal fees, expert witnesses, workers compensation, and the settlement, the company could have purchased each of those employees a luxury home, according to Springer. Adds Springer, “If we can show you how spending a couple of dollars now can give you a couple of hundred dollars next year, would you spend it? When you optimize someone’s work environment, it generally becomes a whole lot more effective and efficient.”
Robin Suttell, based in Cleveland, is contributing editor at Buildings magazine.