OSHA to propose ergonomics standard to prevent repetitive motion injuries

But can such a measure have any impact or even survive?

The Clinton administration will release a proposed ergonomics standard this summer, renewing the fight to establish a rule that would compel U.S. employers to protect workers from repetitive motion injuries and other ergonomic-related disorders. Past efforts have failed, so there is doubt as to how well the proposal will be received.

Occupational Health Management has learned the proposal will be released in a very different form from previous ergonomics proposals and different from almost any previously released standard. The proposal will be much smaller in scope than previous ergonomics proposals, in direct response to the vehement objections that resulted in the defeat of earlier versions. (For more on how the previous proposals failed, see story, p. 27.)

This summer’s proposal will not resemble past ones at all, says David Cochran, PhD, PE, CPE, professor of industrial engineering at the University of Nebraska in Omaha and special assistant for ergonomics at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in Washington, DC. Many details of the proposed standard are still to be determined, but Cochran says the first thing that will get people’s attention is the plain language the standard is written in. OSHA has committed itself to writing standards as simply as possible, and the ergonomics proposal will be one of the first to avoid the formal, highly complex format that occupational health professionals have come to expect from OSHA. "Some people are going to look at it and wonder where’s the rest of the standard," he says. "Most of it is in a question-and-answer format to make it very easy to understand."

Narrow scope misses many employers

In contrast to previous proposals that covered nearly all U.S. employers, the new proposal will apply only to manufacturing and manual-handling jobs such as those in warehouses. Office and retail workers, most notably, are not covered. While OSHA would like to see a broader scope for the ergonomics rule, Cochran says the proposal will be limited to only those job types in which the risk of injury is seen as the greatest and in which intervention efforts are most clearly worthwhile.

"We’re thinking of expanding the rule to general industry, but that’s not the way the proposal is written now," he says. "Computer users would be included if we expand it to general industry, but they’re not covered in the rule yet."

In addition to the narrow scope, the proposed ergonomics rule would be simple when compared to most OSHA standards. Cochran provides this outline of the basic components of the proposed standard:

- Employers must have a system for recording ergonomic-related injuries and illnesses.

This is the heart of the proposed standard, and for many employers this will be the entire requirement. Employees would have to be educated on musculoskeletal disorders and understand how to report hazards and injuries to the employer. If there are no injuries, the employer’s responsibility stops there.

"The injury would have to be something directly related to what they’re doing in that job," Cochran says. "If the employee slips and gets a back injury, that may not trigger any other obligations under this rule because it’s not directly tied to the job activities."

- If a musculoskeletal disorder occurs, the employer must respond.

The expected response will be spelled out in the proposed standard, but Cochran says it will follow typical occupational health protocol. Employers will be expected to investigate the hazard, develop ways to address it, and implement the solutions.

That’s essentially the entire proposed ergonomics standard, Cochran says. Instead of requiring employers to conduct extensive analysis of jobs and respond to hazards in specific ways, as previous proposals did, the new proposal will simply require that some employers keep track of musculoskeletal disorders and respond in some way when they are found. That’s not much, as federal safety standards go, but it could be OSHA’s way of getting a foot in the door.

Cochran says the ergonomics experts and OSHA leaders were well aware of the proposed standard’s history when crafting the latest draft, and they did their best to create one that would be accepted. Several problematic parts of previous standards were intentionally omitted, such as a checklist for compliance and requirements that employers implement corrective action throughout the entire workplace.

Under the new proposal, an employer may implement corrective action for just one hazardous job in the workplace instead of applying that solution across the board.

"A lot of employers will look at this proposal and realize they’re already doing this," he says. "The standard gives them a little more guidance, explaining what OSHA expects so that everyone is under the same umbrella. We’re trying to have an OSHA standard that is protective and not overly burdensome."

One observer says the standard’s simplicity could limit its usefulness for occupational health providers. Pat Stamas, RN, COHN, president of Occupational Health and Safety Resources in Dover, NH, suggests that OSHA watered down the proposal too much based on previous criticism.

"If it were to give clear definitions of what actions are to be taken, rather than just saying you have to be proactive and take some sort of corrective action, it would be much more valuable," she says. "Unless OSHA says you have to do it and do it this way, employers are going to find it easy to look the other way."

But on the other hand, Stamas says she does not expect any significant opposition from employers if the standard is as simple as it sounds at this point.

"It sounds like what most employers are already doing, so they probably won’t oppose it," she says.