Congressionally Funded Study Supports OSHA Ergonomics Program
by Robert M. Fells, Esq., general counsel
A Congressionally funded study by the National Academy of Sciences focusing on musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in the workplace, particularly back and joint injuries, surprised the business community by supporting the need for ergonomic regulations. While not directly endorsing the massive regulations recently issued by the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the study recommends implementing "a variety of strategies that may involve the worker, the workforce and management. These strategies fall within the categories of engineering controls, administrative controls and worker-focused modifiers."
The Ergonomics Program became effective on January 16, although enforcement efforts by OSHA are not scheduled until October 15. OSHA published its controversial ergonomics regulations during the closing weeks of the Clinton administration despite Congressionally approved legislation, awaiting the president's signature, to prohibit OSHA from spending funds to implement the program. The regulations are supported by labor unions but opposed by management organizations that contend the OSHA program is too complicated and will cost tens of billions of dollars for compliance.
Basically, the Ergonomics Program requires all employers, except those in the construction, maritime, agriculture and railroad industries, to identify all MSD hazards in the workplace, to educate workers to report MSD risks and injuries and to provide compensation for MSD-related injuries. There is no small business exemption. The full OSHA report runs 300 pages but a 23-page question-and-answer summary of the requirements can be viewed and downloaded at www.osha.gov.
The National Academy of Sciences study noted that activities outside the workplace could play a role in reported MSDs. However, since 80 percent of the adult population in the United States is in the workforce, efforts to distinguish between work-related and nonwork-related MSD injuries would be unreliable. "The panel concludes that there is a clear relationship between back disorders and physical load; that is, manual material handling, load movement, frequent bending and twisting, heavy physical work and whole body vibration. For disorders of the upper extremities, repetition, force and vibration are particularly important work-related factors."
The study continued, "There are significant data to show that both low back and upper extremity musculoskeletal disorders can be attributed to workplace exposures. Based on the pattern of evidence considered across epidemiological, biological, biomechanical, basic science and intervention studies, the panel concludes, with a high degree of confidence, that there is a strong relationship between certain work tasks and the risk of musculoskeletal disorders."
The study noted that data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated 846,000 lost-workday cases of MSDs in private industry. "Manufacturing was responsible for 22 percent of sprains/strains, carpal tunnel syndrome, or tendinitis, while service industry accounted for 26 percent." According to survey data from the National Center for Health Statistics as referenced in the study, "Among men, the highest-risk industries were lumber and building material retailing, crude petroleum and natural gas extraction and sawmills/planing mills/millwork. Among women, the highest-risk industries were nursing and personal care facilities, beauty shops and motor vehicle equipment manufacturing."
OSHA had been urged by the business community to delay issuance of the Ergonomics program until the National Academy of Sciences study had been published and reviewed. However, OSHA determined that it had received sufficient data to proceed with the new regulations without waiting for the study. It is important to note the study recommendation that, "Because of limitations in the scientific literature, a comprehensive and systematic research program is needed to further clarify and distinguish the features that make interventions effective for specific musculoskeletal disorders."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Coalition on Ergonomics, of which the ICFA is a member, are urging the Bush administration to delay or rescind the OSHA regulations Litigation against the Ergonomics Program is also proceeding.