In the USA, the ergonomics profession is as torn by the concept of an "ergonomics standard" as is general industry, the target of any such rule-making. You will not find consensus, and are likely to encounter widely differing views, when it comes to regulating work-related MSDs (WRMSDs). There is even debate over OSHA’s use of the term "ergonomics", because dealing with WRMSDs is only a subset within the field of ergonomics, by far not its only purpose and benefit. The issue is so controversial, most people I discuss the topic with prefer to remain anonymous. It was one such conversation that spurred me to write this article.
"I still blame OSHA for setting ergonomics back at least ten years," a colleague recently said. Other colleagues assign blame to specific ergonomists, researchers, labor activists, and even a University program for pushing OSHA regulations under the name of ergonomics, giving the field a "bad name."
Equally divisive comments come from the other side of the political question. "Protecting human wellbeing is a core principle in ergonomics, and industry won’t do it unless they’re forced," says one colleague. "Ergonomists that don’t support a regulation are not being true to their field," says another.
No matter where you stand on the political question, understanding where OSHA might be headed is worth the time and effort, because it could have a major impact on the practice of ergonomics, as well as the public’s understanding of the nature and value of ergonomics.
A Brief (and Incomplete) History of OSHA and Ergonomics
OSHA’s first significant foray into ergonomics resulted in the 1991 publication of the Ergonomics Program Management Guidelines For Meatpacking Plants, a document that still provides a decent blueprint for an ergonomics program in any industry, not just meatpacking.
The next significant effort came in former President Clinton’s first term in office, during the mid-1990’s. About the same time that Hillary Clinton was attempting major healthcare reform, OSHA was working on a draft ergonomics standard. The draft was roughly 285 pages long, if memory serves me correctly, and was specification oriented. That draft was abandoned after political backlash.
A new effort took place during Clinton’s second term in the late 1990’s, which culminated in the 2001 Ergonomics Program Standard. That standard was OSHA’s first attempt at a program/process standard, as opposed to the specification style standards that make up the bulk of OSHA’s rules. However, the new congress, supported by the incoming Bush administration, quickly overturned the standard before it went into effect.
The Bush administration then stepped back from regulation and enforcement activities, and instead published voluntary guidelines in cooperation with industry.
Meanwhile, throughout this timeline, OSHA occasionally issued citations under the General Duty Clause. Essentially, the General Duty Clause, also referred to as Section 5A(1), states that whether or not there is a specific standard, employers "shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees." According to insiders, OSHA has had a difficult time making MSD related citations stick under this clause, especially if the employer appealed the citations.
This is not a complete history, but these are the primary activities to date.
Where to from Here?
The only constant in the history of OSHA and ergonomics is that each new administration sets yet another new agenda. With President Obama’s first term well under way, and OSHA Administrator David Michaels at the helm, we’re starting to see a new direction take shape. Under Obama, OSHA has stated it will pursue the following strategic activities:
Will there be an attempt to promulgate a new ergonomics standard? You can find opinions across the spectrum, of course, but it appears that doing so could be a daunting challenge. The Congressional Review Act, which is the law congress used to repeal the 2001 Clinton era rule, states that once repealed, a rule "may not be reissued in substantially the same form, and a new rule that is substantially the same as such a rule may not be issued, unless the reissued or new rule is specifically authorized by a law enacted after the date of the joint resolution disapproving the original rule." So, any new rule would either need to be "substantially" different, or congress would first need to pass a law authorizing a new rule that might be "substantially" similar.
My gut feel, and the opinions of insiders I’ve spoken with, is that the Obama administration is not likely, at least at this point, to pursue a new ergonomics or WRMSD prevention regulation. They have, on the other hand, pursued the addition of a column to capture MSDs on the OSHA 300 Log, a move that some interpret as a "first shot across the bow" toward the pursuit of a new standard. OSHA officials participated in a live web chat on April 7, 2010, and ergonomics was brought up several times by stakeholders. All of the quotes that follow are from that OSHA web chat.
OSHA has also taken a new view of the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP), a cornerstone of the previous Bush administration’s approach:
Kim Locey: We are not eliminating the VPP, but due to budgetary issues we are using our limited resources where they are most needed by focusing on employers that do not do a good job protecting their employees. We are looking for non-government funded ways to continue the program.
Speaking directly to the question of ergonomics:
David Michaels: Until recently, enforcement around ergonomic hazards languished. We recognize that thousands of workers annually suffer from musculoskeletal conditions associated with ergonomic hazards and OSHA must do more. OSHA’s field staff will be looking for ergonomic hazards in their inspections and we will be providing them with the support and back-up they need to enforce under the general duty clause. In addition, we will be examining employer logs to see if MSDs are accurately reported.
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2010-06-02.