An Ergonomics Ounce of Prevention

Dec. 21, 2004
Preparation now could prevent a pound of OSHA-mandated cure later.

Attorney Craig Senn has sobering advice for manufacturers debating whether to comply with a court-challenged workplace ergonomics standard issued by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). "Manufacturers have to see the handwriting on the wall," says Senn, an employment law attorney in the Atlanta office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice PLLC, who helped draft the North Carolina ergonomics standard in 1998. "It is just wishful thinking" that a new Administration, Congress, or the courts will throw out the standard. The ergonomics rule is slated to go into effect this week with a compliance date of Oct. 15. That means 6.1 million companies in the U.S. with 102 million workers need to prepare now to comply with OSHA's most expensive and sweeping standard ever. Annual compliance-cost estimates range as high as $134 billion because the standard encompasses the entire workplace and all jobs, compared with most OSHA standards that are hazard- or exposure-specific. OSHA believes the standard will reduce the number of repetitive motion and back injuries by 250,000 annually. To be sure, the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia-where the court challenges were consolidated last month-could temporarily stay the standard at some point. Or the court could send it back to OSHA for revision of any part it feels is not "a logical outgrowth" of the proposal process, says former OSHA attorney Baruch Fellner, now a partner in the Washington office of Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP. A case in point: The medical triggers that require companies to institute ergonomics programs are totally different from those originally proposed. But hoping any of that occurs and delaying action until there's some finality-which Fellner says could be as far off as February or March of 2002-amounts to workplace suicide since "manufacturing is the target" of OSHA's standard, says Deron Zeppelin, director of governmental affairs, Society for Human Resource Management, Alexandria, Va. To make compliance with the standard "a win-win" for everyone and not "their worst nightmare," manufacturers need to institute "proactive preventive measures now to reduce the risk of ergonomic injuries," says Stephen J. Cabot, chairman of the labor relations and employment law department of Harvey Pennington Cabot Griffith & Renneisen Ltd., Philadelphia. Specifically, manufacturers must educate employees about ergonomics, establish or review internal injury-reporting procedures, analyze the ergonomic risk in jobs, and seek the advice of both ergonomists and physicians. Cabot says the top priority should be instituting reporting procedures that detect repetitive-motion injuries before they become serious medical conditions. "If the way work is performed is contributing to injuries," says Cabot, "make a medical evaluation of the risks involved and get a jump start on changes that reduce the physical stress" of tasks. Senn agrees. "You have to look at what types of jobs or tasks [in the past] have produced injuries and symptoms that appear to be of an ergonomic nature and do what you can to control those ergonomic hazards." For example, he says, you may need to lower or raise the height of a workstation, change some manufacturing processes, or simply automate some repetitive tasks that put undue physical stress on workers. But because each workplace has its own unique character, both Senn and Cabot suggest that companies call in physicians to make medical evaluations of injuries. Also consult ergonomists to get their recommendations on potential on-the-job risks and how to minimize them. And don't neglect education. "If you provide employees with a handbook that discusses ergonomic risk factors and signs and symptoms [of injuries], you will be able to nip problems in the bud" and actually benefit from reduced workers compensation costs, higher workforce productivity, and reduced absenteeism, says Charles Kopin, director, off-site services, Industrial Health Care Co., Windsor, Conn.

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