An industry rep, a G-man and a photographer go into a room. Sound like the start of a bad joke? Not really. These three are in the room for a reason — it’s the birth of an ergonomics alliance, and the photographer and the PR people are dutifully there to capture the hoopla surrounding the signing.
These days it’s happening every couple of weeks. By mid-November, OSHA had entered into 12 alliances, although not all of them are ergonomics alliances. And that begs the questions — exactly what is an OSHA alliance and why are industry groups suddenly so hot to sign them?
THE OSHA SEAL OF APPROVAL
By definition, an alliance is a partnership that brings a set of groups together for a common cause; in this case, the alliance is between OSHA and any of a number of industry groups, and the cause is ergonomics. No regulations, not even voluntary guidelines, unless the parties to the alliance decide that is a common goal they want to work towards. Very un-intrusive, but with kind of a Batman mystique about it – there to help, when needed, but otherwise OSHA will keep to itself.
The alliance document says little more than that both groups, OSHA and industry, are “pro-ergo” and proud of it. It’s a template that the industry groups get to pick and choose from, ordering alliance components from an a la carte menu designed by OSHA.
But an alliance isn’t a partnership. "Alliances are slightly less structured than partnerships," says Lee Anne Jillings, Director of the Office of Outreach Services and Alliances for OSHA. "Alliances have specific goals, but they don’t have any data collection issues, nor an enforcement component."
So what good does it do to sign? "It’s building a trusting cooperative relationship with the agency, establishing a network with others who are committed to workplace and health. It’s also an opportunity to get recognized as a proactive leader. There’s a press release, a signing event," says Jillings. But nothing to be held accountable for.
Embarking on an alliance is easy — in most cases, OSHA has actively recruited the industries, although some have recruited OSHA instead. According to Bill Wright, media representative for OSHA, industry representatives will see the positive press and working relationship that the alliance participants receive and they’ll jump on board, too.
But beyond a little good press, a chance to schmooze with John Henshaw, OSHA’s administrator, and the non-sticky equivalent of an I-Support-My-Local-Health-And-Safety-Organization bumper sticker, there’s really little else, except a piece of paper that says "I’m for ergo." Guidelines, if any, are left up to the signing organization, although OSHA will pitch in if asked. Self-regulation is the only control.
"[They’re developing] more cross communicational resources for helping them in answering questions. Each alliance has a point person within the agency. . ." says Jillings. Or maybe a hotline to the bat cave.
A FRIENDS AND FAMILY NETWORK
So far, the meat industry, the plastics industry, a group of airlines, the furniture industry, industrial hygienists, and the printing industry have made ergonomics alliances – an impressive number of recruits and walk-ons for a program that didn’t even exist until September 19 when the furniture industry, along with the state of North Carolina, signed the first one.
"We would be crazy to not want to avail ourselves of any of their expertise," says White Watkins, Vice President of Human Resources and Safety for the American Furniture Manufacturer’s Association (AFMA). Like most industry groups, Watkins’s group pushed hard for the repeal of the previous ergonomics standard created by OSHA. "They were putting the coat on us and that coat doesn’t [fit]. Now we’re putting on our own coat and tailoring it to us," Watkins says.
"For the last 10-12 years we have been diligently working on improving our ergonomic situations in our operations," Watkins continues, noting that the furniture manufacturing industry has dropped their incident rate from 2 to 1.09 in eleven years. "That’s a tremendous difference," says White.
According to Watkins, OSHA came to AFMA because of that difference, but also because both groups were ready to set up workable guidelines that could be used as an example for other industries. "We were the first manufacturing sector to do this," says Watkins. The plan, believes Watkins, is for OSHA to use the guidelines that AFMA creates to encourage other industries to develop their own sets of guidelines. Teaching by example.
But for Watkins, what really makes AFMA’s alliance work is the approach, and the fact that if the industry is creating its own guidelines, OSHA will stay out of it. "Voluntary is the key word. It is human nature. My wife and I have been married for 42 years and if I come home and I say we are going to paint the den tan and I say it like that, she’s not going to be the least bit excited about painting it tan," Watkins says. "If you bring the other folks into the picture, have them be part of the decision making, everyone thinks that it’s their decision. No one has said to us you have to put this in there." Perceptibly less government involvement. Manufacturers can create something that works for their specific industry and for their individual workers without worrying about the government trying to run their business.
That’s what made the printing industry sign, too. "Simply put, our industry has had a lot of luck working with the EPA to . . create voluntary programs or initiatives," says Dan Marx, media representative with the Screenprinting and Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA). After one successful accord, creating another alliance with the government just made sense. "And we get to utilize the knowledge of the government and those involved," says Marx.
"We [associations] are experts in our own industries. They [OSHA] are charged with overseeing all industries. To expect people at OSHA to create guidelines for every industry and have them be effective isn’t likely. We understand our hazards," says Marx.
FRIEND OR FOE
Aside from a freshly-inked alliance, there’s one thing that almost all of the affected organizations have in common — a hatred of the previous ergonomics standard.
"If you look back to what the attitudes were two to three years ago, they were negative," says Don Duncan, president of the Society of the Plastics Industry. "There was a lot of mythology in this [standard]. People on the industry side were thinking OSHA was looking at millions of dollars in fines."
Since the standard was rescinded, however, attitudes have changed, says Duncan. "Henshaw’s objective is to improve performance and reduce injury, rewarding on how well he can help industry improve performance. It’s hard to sit on the industry sidelines and tell them ‘up yours’ when they’re trying to help," Duncan says.
But still there’s some irony that everyone who has signed an alliance, save the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA), lambasted the previous standard and then less than a year later signed up when OSHA came calling. And each signing industry says the same thing — that it’s important to keep its workers happy and healthy, that they’ve been working on ergonomics for a decade or more, improving safety and quality and morale among their workforce, and that the government had no business getting involved. But even with alliances, the government still is.
"OSHA does have a general duty clause, 5(a)1, to cite companies for workplace hazards," says OSHA’s Wright. Then again, aside from the recently-created alliance of airlines, individual companies aren’t signing with OSHA, just industry representatives. And while each representative organization swears that its signed alliance agreement will be implored upon everyone doing business in that industry, there is still no system in place to be sure that the company is following through, except OSHA’s general duty clause. So now it’s passive-aggressive government involvement.
NOT A PERFECT UNION
When the meat industry signed its alliance, Jackie Nowell thinks she got the shaft. "They called me an hour before. Pretty short notice," Nowell says. As Director of the Occupational Safety and Health Office of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), Nowell wasn’t surprised she didn’t get invited to the dance. Just annoyed.
"They don’t want to include anybody who criticizes them. They can’t say enough about guidelines. We’re all in this together; we all needed to be crafting this ergonomics document," says Nowell.
The UFCW represents about 1.1 million workers in America; Nowell admits there are still plenty of workers out there that they don’t have. But at the heart of ergonomics is the worker. To Nowell and other union reps, it’s strange that the worker’s voice is intentionally stifled in the process. "People aligning with the trade groups? They have very little influence inside these plants," says Nowell.
"They’re trying to score some political points," says Dan McCausland, Director of Workers Safety and Human Resources for the American Meat Industry (AMI) of the union’s response to their alliance. "It’s a blanket negative approach. They accused AMI and OSHA of conspiring against [their union]."
The meat industry alliance is possibly the most controversial of the alliances signed thus far. First, there’s the history behind the alliance. Across the board, the meat industry is wrought with injury. "It’s very labor intensive and very demanding work," says McCausland. Sharp blades, flexible products, lack of uniform sizes in slaughtered animals. While McCausland boasts a 50 percent decrease in overall incident rate over the past 10 years, he’s quick to point out that the numbers are still comparatively very high.
OSHA clued in to the inherent ergonomics dangers in the meat industry over a decade ago, and long before there was the now-repealed national ergonomics standard, OSHA created guidelines specific to the meat industry — guidelines that are still used today. Guidelines that are also part of the alliance that the meat industry entered into. Guidelines that no one is planning to alter.
But specifically, like all of the alliances, nothing tangible is called for. For industry, that’s the beauty of an alliance — no one telling them what has to be done; the ability to make industry-specific decisions. For the union, that’s the problem — with an alliance, there’s nothing measurable and no one held accountable, and nothing that has to be accomplished
"If a voluntary approach were sufficient we wouldn’t have this massive problem," says Peg Seminario, Director of Safety and Health for the AFL-CIO. "Guidelines provide useful information. But if you look at the draft nursing home guidelines. . . it needs to do more. Even the nursing home guidelines don’t represent the best practice," Seminario continues. And with regard to the meat industry guidelines, ones that Seminario calls a prelude to regulation, "Twelve years later, and we still have not made much progress," she says.
THREE VOICES, STILL NO ANSWER
The union perspective of this is that none of OSHA’s dog and pony show helps the worker. OSHA calls the press and signs an unenforceable piece of paper with an industry representative. Unions cry foul because they’re the voice of the worker and they weren’t included. Companies get some support material that they have no obligation to follow, and the worker on the front lines gets whatever he or she is dealt.
"For me, it’s completely PR. ‘We’re the administration who loves industry and we’ll show you,’" says UFCW’s Nowell of Washington’s current political climate. "They’d rather be friends than watchdogs."
But the other take on this is that companies are wise enough to see that a solid commitment to ergonomics makes business sense. And if the government wants to throw them a little good PR, well, to paraphrase SPI’s Duncan, who is going to tell them to stuff it?
"We want each of our employees to return home at the end of the work day in the same safe condition that they arrived at their work day," says the AFMA’s Watkins. "We would have to be just insensitive and totally without intelligence to want to injure one of our employees. Employees make up the company." And industry rep, G-man, PR specialist, and photographer aside, that’s no joke.
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2002-11-01.