Point of Beginning

Editor's Note: A Matter of Ergonomics

April 18, 2000
Unlike most hoops OSHA asks you to jump through, this one actually makes sound financial sense.

In late November, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced a new ergonomics program standard. Ergonomics is the science of fitting the job to the worker--not the other way around. When a mismatch between the physical requirements of a job and the physical capacity of a worker occurs, the result is often a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD). Examples of MSD are back injuries, muscle strains and repetitive stress disorder, also known as carpal tunnel syndrome. MSDs are not the results of slips, falls or other accidents.

The proposed standard affects all employers in general industry whose employees are subject to risk factors for MSD. Workers at risk for MSD include those who often repeat the same motion throughout the workday, do heavy lifting in awkward positions or work in cold temperatures. Sounds like just another day in survey work; obviously, field crew members and office personnel are both at risk for MSD.

According to OSHA, these injuries are easy and fairly inexpensive to prevent. Sometimes the solution is as easy as adding a book under a monitor, padding a tool handle, providing the right tool for the job or encouraging short authorized rest breaks. OSHA estimates that employers will spend about $700 per establishment per year to comply with the standard.

The proposal states that companies where at least one employee suffers a MSD must institute a basic ergonomics program. Fewer than 30 percent of employers have one in place now. Small businesses (those with less than 20 workers) are not exempted, although allowances are made for a longer compliance phase-in, exemptions from record keeping requirements and the option of enacting "Quick Fixes" instead of setting up a full ergonomics program. Currently, the proposal affects only general industry, but the construction industry will soon follow in future rule-making.

Copies of the proposed ergonomics program standard can be accessed at www.pob- online.com on our links page. Copies of the proposal can also be ordered by calling 202/693-1888. Public hearings on the proposed standard begin Feb. 22, 2000.

Some among you may grumble that this is just another attempt by OSHA to stick its nose in where it doesn't belong--it certainly wouldn't be the first time OSHA attempted to do that! But this time, the hoop OSHA is asking you to jump through makes sound financial sense. OSHA estimates the proposal will generate savings of $9 billion annually in workers' compensation and other direct costs--not to mention that MSDs cause one-third of all lost work days. Can you imagine the savings you would reap if your employees took one-third less sick days than they do now? Preventing work-related MSDs makes sense, OSHA rule or not. The surveying profession should support this proposed standard. Aside from the fact it's an eventual money-saver and inexpensive to implement, it's also the right thing to do. Our employees deserve as safe a workplace as we can give them.