Ergonomics & The Cleaner

October 4, 2000
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Understanding the recently proposed ergonomics standard, and implementing a "Quick Fix" can benefit employees and employers alike.



Ergonomics has taken on several meanings to many people. To some, it is just another governmental tactic for regulation their business, to others it means improved working conditions. Whatever your stance is on the topic, implementing an ergonomics program will become law to 25% of the general industry employers, including:

Manufacturing (production) jobs where employees perform the “physical work activities” necessary in producing a product;

Manual handling jobs that involve forceful lifting/lowering, pushing/pulling, or carrying. The definitions section of the proposed ergonomics standard includes a list of jobs that are typically included in and excluded from the above employment sectors.

History

Ergonomics is a relatively new branch of science that celebrates its 50th anniversary in 1999, but relies on research carried out in many other older, established scientific areas, such as engineering, physiology and psychology.

The new branch originated in World War 2, when scientists designed advanced new and potentially improved systems without fully considering the people who would be using them. It gradually became clear that systems and products would have to be designed to take account of many human and environmental factors if they are to be used safely and effectively. This awareness of people’s requirements resulted in the discipline of ergonomics.

Most cleaners and restorers have heard of ergonomics and think it has something to do with seating or with the design of car controls and instruments. It does, but it involves so much more. Ergonomics is the application of scientific information concerning humans to the design of objects, systems and environment for human use.

The science comes into everything, which involves people. Work systems, sports and leisure, health and safety should all embody ergonomics principles if well designed.

Advancements

According to the U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, an average of 300,000 workers can be spared from painful, potentially disabling, injuries, and $9 billion can be saved each year under a proposed ergonomics program standard.

“Work-related musculoskeletal disorders such as back injuries and carpal tunnel syndrome are the most prevalent, most expensive and most preventable workplace injuries in the country,” said Herman. “Real people are suffering real injuries that can disable their bodies and destroy their lives. The good news is that real solutions are available.”

OSHA’s proposed ergonomics program standard relies on a practical, flexible approach that reflects industry best practices and focuses on jobs where problems are severe and solutions well understood. It would require general industry employers to address ergonomics—the fit between the worker and work —for manual handling or manufacturing production jobs. Employers would also need to fix other jobs where employees experience work-related musculoskeletal disorders.

Approximately 25% of general industry worksites—1.9 million sites—would be affected and more than 27 million workers would be protected by the standard. Implementing these measures would generate average savings of $9 billion annually in workers’ compensation and other direct costs alone. An OSHA study revealed that fewer than 30% of general industry employers have effective ergonomics programs in place today.

Each year 1.8 million U.S. workers experience work-related musculoskeletal disorders, such as injuries from overexertion or repetitive motion. Nearly 33% of these injuries are serious enough to require time off work. Work-related musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs, account for one-third of all workers’ compensation costs each year because these injuries can require a lengthy recovery time.

Women suffer some of the most severe MSDs because a large number of women work in jobs associated with heavy lifting, awkward postures or repetitive motion. Women account for 70% of the carpal tunnel syndrome cases, and 62% of the tendinitis cases that result in lost workdays. More than 100,000 women experience work-related back injuries annually that results in work absences.

Under the OSHA proposal, about 1.6 million employers would need to implement a basic ergonomics program—assigning someone to be responsible for ergonomics; providing information to employees on the risk of injuries, signs and symptoms to watch for and the importance of reporting problems early; and setting up a system for employees to report signs and symptoms. Full programs would be required only if one or more work-related MSDs actually occurred.

The proposal also offers a “Quick Fix” alternative to setting up a full ergonomics program—correct a hazard within 90 days, check to see that the fix works and no further action is necessary. In addition, a “grandfather” clause gives credit to firms that already have effective ergonomics programs in place and are working to correct hazards.

OSHA’s proposal identifies six elements for a full ergonomics program: Management leadership and employee participation; Hazard information and reporting; Job hazard analysis and control; Training; MSD management; and Program evaluation.

An ergonomics program should be job-based. Meaning, it should specifically cover the one job where the risk of developing an MSD exists and jobs like it that expose other workers to the same hazard. Ergonomics programs do not need to cover all the jobs at the workplace.

The proposal would require workers who experience covered musculoskeletal disorders receive a prompt response, evaluation of their injury and follow-up by a health care professional, if necessary. Workers who need time off the job to recover from the injury could get 90% of pay and 100% of benefits—to limit economic loss as a result of their injuries. Workers on light duty would receive full pay and benefits. This provision is designed to encourage early reporting to catch problems before they result in injuries. Evidence collected by OSHA indicates that employees are reluctant to report symptoms if doing so might cause them to miss work and reduce their paycheck.

Most employers in general industry will incur minimal costs. Employers who need to correct problems will spend an average of $150 per year, per workstation fixed. The total cost to employers would equal $4.2 billion each year.

The agency has taken public comments and held hearings in Washington, DC; Portland, OR; and Chicago, IL. After the hearings, there is another comment period to allow people who testified at the hearings to provide more information. The agency has targeted the end of calendar year 2000 to issue the final ergonomics standard.

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