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Qualifying for "grandfather" status under the ergonomics standard of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) may be easier than you realize. As the standard became effective Jan. 16, employers with ergonomics programs that contain certain basic elements and have been evaluated for effectiveness could claim "grandfather" status.
Those employers do not need to comply with the specific provisions of the standard as long as their programs include management leadership, employee participation, job hazard analysis and control, and training. Employers have until Jan. 16, 2002, to implement musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) management and work-restriction protection.
The bottom line: "Do you have the major components of an ergonomics program and can you demonstrate to us that it’s been effective in reducing the number and severity of [MSDs]?" asks Gary Orr, PE, CPE, an ergonomist who helped draft OSHA’s standard. "Some employers may qualify that don’t realize it."
Employers do not have to apply for grandfather status. Rather, it is a privilege they can evoke. "If it becomes an issue during an inspection, they have to produce documentation," asks Orr. For example, the ergonomics program must predate the final standard, which was issued Nov. 14, 2000, and an evaluation of the program must have been conducted before Jan. 16, 2001.
In a letter clarifying the grandfather provision, Charles Jeffress, OSHA administrator, stated: "The standard does not require employers to find, on this initial evaluation, that the program is without deficiencies or that it complies in every respect with the program required by OSHA’s standard. Instead, OSHA expects employers with effective existing programs to have identified, by Jan. 16, 2001, any missing elements, subelements, or deficiencies in their programs and to have established a reasonable timeline for addressing these issues. Employers with effective programs [that] have established such a timeline by Jan. 16, 2001, and conform to the timeline thereafter will be considered eligible for grandfather status."
OSHA’s position provides flexibility to employers who have an ergonomics program but have not fully implemented it, says Peggy Swirczek, CHSP, director of loss prevention services at the Michigan Health and Hospital Association in Lansing. "Employers can document areas of their program that are not in compliance and put together a timeline of how they intend to comply, and [OSHA] will allow employers to still utilize the grandfather clause in that case," she notes. "Most hospitals have some sort of ergonomics program in place. That [letter from Jeffress] really extends a lot of leverage to hospitals in terms of compliance."
At Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta, Joyce Cain, RN, manager of the Employee Health Clinic, took a closer look at her injury data and prepared an evaluation of the ergonomics program. The exercise helped focus a program that already matches much of what is outlined in OSHA’s standard, she says.
Cain also was able to demonstrate the hospital’s effective response to MSD hazards. For example, when wrist injuries rose among female employees in the environmental services area, the hospital’s ergonomist discovered that they were using mops that were too heavy. The substitution of lighter mops led to a reduction in the injuries. Meanwhile, the hospital’s ergonomist is taking proactive measures, such as reviewing any new construction for ergonomic concerns, Cain says.
Because employers don’t need to file any paperwork to request grandfather status, it’s impossible to know how many hospitals plan to make use of the provision. Orr notes that a 1993 survey found that 16% of employers had an ergonomics program. That number is likely to have grown, and may be significantly higher in hospitals, which suffered from almost 47,000 injuries involving sprains and strains and 5,200 injuries involving back pain in 1998, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
By Oct. 15, all employers are required to educate employees about the ergonomics standard and begin responding to reports of injuries. "Most people are documenting feverishly what they can for compliance with the grandfather clause and planning on how they can be in compliance with this, at least by having employee training in place by October," says Swirczek. "They are definitely moving forward."