The New Year could ring in a United States administration that doesn’t abhor workplace regulations, opening a door for the development of an ergonomics standard. It won’t be the first: The hard-won Ergonomics Program Standard of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) had a brief life between November 2000 and March 2001. At the urging of the business community, it was repealed by Republican President George W. Bush soon after it was promulgated
Imagine the possibilities on the other side of that door. One is a less-protracted and smoother process. The last standard was a compromise forged on a battleground. Trade unions faced off in OSHA committees against business interests. Experts assigned to OSHA from other employment struggled to find common ground on the science and details of the regulation.
Another possibility is a better standard than the first.
In September, the Ergonomics Report™ explored both possibilities with ergonomists who participated in the project: David J. Cochran, Ph.D., CPE, a professor in the Industrial and Management Systems Engineering college at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; and Barbara Silverstein, Ph.D., CPE, research director at the SHARP (Safety and Health Assessment and Research for Prevention) agency in Washington state.
Professor Cochran doesn’t see OSHA abandoning the original. He was assigned to the agency to help shape the regulation in two separate long spells in the 1990s. "Having gone through a very long process developing that standard, I think that what is going to come out of any process is going to be something that is somewhat similar."
He foresees another protracted project. "OSHA, by its very nature and by the legal limits it functions under, will have to go through a new development process." They will have to issue a notice of proposed rule making and hold meetings, he explained. "I think they would have to go through the whole rule-making process again."
Dr. Silverstein, who worked on the project from 1993 to 1995, favors paying dues to the original. "I actually think there should be some discussion of what’s been there," she said. "I think a number of people need to be involved in the discussion of the 2000 proposal, what the strengths and maybe the limitations of it were, and to see if it needs to be modified or changed." It doesn’t mean you have to come up with unanimity, she pointed out, "but I think that the discussion really needs to be had."
Asked what he would change, Professor Cochran said he would pull workers compensation out of a new version. He has already gone public with this and other recommendations, modifying the OSHA version to his liking and posting the result on the Web at http://engineering.unl.edu/academicunits/IMSE/faculty-staff/ErgoStandard.shtml. "I liked having a little more guidance on what was acceptable activity as far as the employer was concerned."
He explained that he also wanted to see "more of an idea of a grandfather clause" to determine how existing programs can be folded into compliance with the standard.
One of his recommendations on the website give OSHA the flexibility to approve a program if the employer can demonstrate it is effective.
Professor Cochran pointed out that his version reflects his individual point of view, and is not necessarily the correct one. A standard, he explained, "is developed based on the opinions of the legal counsel, people … out in the field, and [many] points of view."
Were she to have the final say, Dr. Silverstein would include all workplaces in any new version. "I think that having a level playing field is important. … Wherever the risks exist, there should be an effort to reduce them. That’s my basic operating premise." She observes some desire to exclude construction "because they move around a lot, but … construction is where you have a huge number of musculoskeletal injuries and disorders." From a scientific point, leaving them out would be problematic, she added.
The other thing I think is important is to have as simple and understandable rule as possible, said Dr. Silverstein. She cited for its simplicity the ergonomics rule passed in Washington state, which was repealed in 2003. "Clearly [it] was much simpler than the federal rule. And if, in fact, you are going to have a wide variety and sizes of both size and industries involved in an ergonomics rule, which I think you should have, then you need to make it as simple as possible."
Professor Cochran described a question about whether he was still committed to having an ergonomics standard as a tough one to answer. "The reason it is, if you ask me if OSHA should have a standard that covers injuries that are related to musculoskeletal disorders, I’d say yes." I hate to call it an ergonomics standard, he added, "because we think of ergonomics as the solution, not the problem. "Do I think that it should be OSHA’s priority? That is something someone other than me has to answer."
Following the repeal of the OSHA ergonomics regulation in 2001, there were hard-fought battles to replace it with voluntary guidelines. Over time, these were watered down to apply only to a limited number of industries.
Though still committed to ergonomics regulation, the professor sees some value in the voluntary approach. "I certainly see a place for guidance," he explained. "I see a place for helping employers deal with the very real problems that they have."
Asked if eight years of voluntary guidelines had achieved anything, he replied that many employers paid attention when the standard was under development. "I think once the pressure was off … [they] backed off and relaxed. "But some of them said ‘this is good,’ because if an employer puts a good faith effort into an ergonomics standard, an effort to deal with musculoskeletal disorders, they find it’s good for their bottom line in multiple ways."
Dr. Silverstein says she hasn’t softened her position on having a standard, and sees value in the Canadian province of Ontario’s "naming and shaming" method for improving compliance with health and safety regulations. "They have basic health and safety regulations. This isn’t with respect to ergonomics specifically, but they identified the top 1000 companies in Ontario who had … the highest incidence rates. And they targeted them with a visit from a compliance officer every three months. And what they were able to do – there were a wide range of industries – they publicized who was on the top one-thousand list in all the newspapers, so everybody knew. And those people wanted off that list, so there were some real improvements that took place."
She sees little value in voluntary compliance. "I don’t know that totally voluntary approaches actually work. I think that there are a lot of employers who are doing the right thing, and they are involving their employees in identifying problems and solutions. They are not going to need a standard anyway because they are going beyond any standard — the standard is like the bottom line of what is acceptable – it is not what is stellar, it is what is acceptable."
During the battleground days, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) asserted that the ergonomics standard could prevent 1.6 million workplace injuries a year and reduce associated costs by more than $45 billion yearly.
Professor Cochran was asked why ergonomics compliance – regulated or voluntary – is resisted so energetically by the business community when the benefits can be demonstrated. "Most, if not all of industry, doesn’t want any more regulation of any sort. So there’s that problem," he replied.
Sources: Professor David Cochran; Dr. Barbara Silverstein
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2008-10-01.