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OSHA Issues Long-awaited Ergonomics Rule

December 13, 1999
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Issue: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released its long-awaited proposed ergonomics standard on November 22. OSHA estimates that the standard would affect about one-third of general industry work sites—about 1.9 million workplaces and more than 27 million workers.

Because of the media attention this proposed rule has received, as well as its controversial nature, your CEO has requested that you report back with your assessment of the impact of the standard on your workforce. What do you tell him?

Answer: Start by emphasizing that the standard is merely at the proposal stage. OSHA is accepting comments on the proposed standard until February 1 and plans to hold a series of public hearings in 2000 on the proposed rule. Given the controversy, implementation isn t likely anytime soon.

What s the purpose of the rule?
The rule is designed to address the work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), such as injuries from overexertion or repetitive motion, that affect 1.8 million U.S. workers each year. About one-third of these injuries—600,000—are serious enough to require time off work. Because these injuries can require a lengthy recovery time, work-related MSDs account for one-third of all workers' compensation costs each year.

Who's covered?
The standard applies to employers in general industry with employees working in manufacturing jobs or manual handling jobs, or other jobs with OSHA recordable musculoskeletal disorders reported after the effective date of the standard. MSDs include such conditions as carpel tunnel syndrome, sciatica, tendonitis, herniated spinal disk, and lower-back pain, as well as a host of others. The standard is job-based and does not apply to entire workplaces; it also does not apply to agriculture, construction, or maritime operations.

  • Examples of manufacturing jobs that would typically fall under the standard include assembly line jobs; product inspection jobs; meat, poultry, and fish cutting and packaging; machine operation, loading and unloading; and other manufacturing activities.
  • Typical manual handling jobs would include patient handling; package sorting, handling, and delivering; baggage handling; warehouse; beverage delivery; grocery store bagging and stocking; garbage collecting, among others.
  • Other jobs in which employees report a "covered MSD," i.e., one that would be recordable on the OSHA injury and illness log, would also be covered by the standard. This includes only jobs in which the physical work activities and conditions are reasonably likely to cause or contribute to the type of MSDs reported, and the activities or conditions are a "core element" of the job, and/or make up a significant amount of the employee's work time.

What if you already have an ergonomics program?
Employers that already have an ergonomics program in place may continue that program, even if it differs from the standard, provided they can show:

  • The program satisfies the basic obligation of each program element,
  • They comply with the standard's recordkeeping requirements.
  • Their evaluation of the program indicates that the program elements are functioning properly.

Here's a "quick fix" option.
The standard allows employers to make a "quick fix" to remedy a problem job, instead of setting up a full ergonomics program. To make a quick fix, the employer must do the following:

  1. Promptly make available the medical management required by the standard.
  2. Consult with employees in the problem job about the physical work activities or conditions they associate with their difficulties, observe employees performing the jobs to identify risk factors, and ask employees for their recommendations for eliminating the hazard.
  3. Implement quick fix controls within 90 days, and follow up within 30 days to determine if the controls have eliminated the hazard.
  4. Provide hazard information to employees in the problem job within 90 days.
  5. Keep a record of the quick fix controls.

If the MSD hazards only pose a risk to the individual employee with the covered MSD, you can limit the quick fix to that individual's job. If the quick fix controls do not eliminate the MSD hazards within 120 days, or if another covered MSD resulting from the same physical work activities and conditions is reported within that job within 36 months, the employer must then set up a complete ergonomics program.

Cite: Subpart Y, Sec. 1910.900 et seq., entitled "Ergonomics Program Standard," published in the November 23 Federal Register

Source: CCH Incorporated is a leading provider of information and software for human resources, legal, accounting, health-care and small-business professionals. CCH offers human resource management, payroll, employment, benefits, and worker-safety products and publications in print, CD, online and via the Internet. For more information and other updates on the latest HR news, check our Web site at http://hr.cch.com.

The information contained in this article is intended to provide useful information on the topic covered, but should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion.

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