Hospital group opposes OSHA ergonomics standard

Occupational health groups also raise concerns

The American Hospital Association has joined with the National Coalition on Ergonomics to oppose the new ergonomics standard proposed by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

In printed comments to OSHA, the Associa tion of Occupational Health Professionals in Healthcare (AOHP) in Reston, VA, and the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses (AAOHN) in Atlanta also expressed concerns about several aspects of the proposed standard.

The draft ergonomics standard, released in October, requires employers to respond to each work-related musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) with an ergonomic solution. Isolated problems could be addressed with a "quick fix," but OSHA would require most injuries to trigger a full-scale program of analysis, training, and medical management.

OSHA estimates that the standard would reduce work-related MSDs by at least 26%, with an annual cost to the hospital industry of $740 million or $735 per worker.

While AOHP and AAOHN support creation of a standard, they say the proposed version doesn’t require that a qualified health professional conduct the evaluation of the worker’s injury. They also oppose the work-restriction protections that give injured employees 90% of their wages while off duty for a MSD, a provision that means these injuries would be treated differently from other worker’s compensation claims.

With coalition, AHA takes strong stand

By joining with the National Coalition on Ergo nomics, the AHA takes an even tougher stand. The coalition, an industry group that includes manufacturers, trucking companies, grocers, and major business organizations, represents the most organized opposition to the ergonomics standard. The coalition contends that not enough scientific information is available to determine what causes lifting or repetitive trauma injuries and what can prevent them.

"We think employers and employees ought to share what they believe has been a successful solution in their industries," says coalition spokes man Al Lundeen. "We’re not at a stage where we should regulate. A regulation needs some absolute science behind it."

The AHA likewise says the proposed standard is too broad in scope and that more research is needed, says spokeswoman Carol Schadelbauer. Rather than submitting its own comments to OSHA, the AHA will sign onto the coalition’s comments, she says.

Those were the arguments that led Congress to prohibit OSHA from promulgating a proposed standard before Sept. 30, 1998. A 1999 report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) stated that workplace interventions can decrease the risk of occupational musculoskeletal disorders, thus bolstering OSHA’s efforts.

AOHP cites need for more information

Congress requested another NAS study to review the link between repetitive tasks in the workplace and repetitive stress injuries, but efforts to postpone OSHA’s proposed ergonomics standard until the release of that report failed. The NAS study is expected later this year.

AOHP supports a delay to include the new NAS information. "Our position is that although there is evidence to support OSHA promulgating an ergonomic standard at this time, we would recommend that the results of the current National Academy of Science study be utilized to determine the triggers as well as other components in the final OSHA standard," the AOHP executive board stated in comments to OSHA.

"The standard would then be based on the most currently available scientific data," the AOHP stated. "During the interim, the general duty clause has been and could continue to be invoked to address ergonomic issues in the workplace."

OSHA extended its comment period on the standard to March 2 and postponed several hearings in response to a request from industry representatives that they needed more time. Hearings originally scheduled to begin on Feb. 22 in Washington, DC, are now set for March 13. A hearing in Chicago will begin on April 11 as planned. A third hearing, originally scheduled for March 21 in Portland, OR, will be rescheduled.

"It’s a positive sign that OSHA has recognized that more time is needed to give people a chance to read the proposal thoroughly," says Lundeen.

The extended comment period and delayed hearings aren’t likely to derail OSHA’s efforts. "The ergonomics program we proposed provides a practical, flexible approach to preventing musculoskeletal disorders," OSHA Assistant Secretary Charles Jeffress said in a statement. "It reflects industry’s best practices by focusing on jobs where problems are severe and solutions are well understood. America’s workers have waited a long time for this standard."