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Ergonomics Questions and Answers

What is an "ergonomic injury?

Input from the recent ergonomics forums demonstrated to OSHA that there are a wide variety of opinions on how the Agency should define an ergonomic injury and that the definition adopted by OSHA depends on the context. Ergonomic injuries are often described by the term "musculoskeletal disorders" or "MSDs." This is the term of art in scientific literature that refers collectively to a group of injuries and illnesses that affect the musculoskeletal system; there is no single diagnosis for MSDs. As OSHA develops guidance material for specific industries, the agency may narrow the definition as appropriate to address the specific workplace hazards covered. OSHA will work closely with stakeholders to develop definitions for MSDs as part of its overall effort to develop guidance materials.

Are all MSDs work-related?

No. MSDs can and do develop outside the workplace.

How do you determine whether MSDs are work-related?

The determination of whether any particular MSD is work-related may require the use of different approaches tailored to specific workplace conditions and exposures. Broadly speaking, establishing the work-relatedness of a specific case may include:

  • taking a careful history of the patient and the illness;
  • conducting a thorough medical examination; and
  • characterizing factors on and off the job that may have caused or contributed to the MSD.

Guidelines:

Why aren't you doing another rule?

Congress passed, and the President signed, Senate Joint Resolution 6, which rescinded the original ergonomics rule, and under the Congressional Review Act, prohibits the agency from issuing a rule that is substantially the same as the former one.

There are a number of reasons why guidelines are preferable to doing a rule. OSHA must follow certain criteria in doing a rule - any rule. In terms of ergonomics, there are factors that make doing a rule very difficult:

  • There are a variety of different hazards and combinations of different hazards to be addressed;
  • Exposure to the hazards is not readily measured in some cases;
  • The exposure-response relationship is not well understood;
  • Cost and feasibility of abatement measures may be uncertain and may be very high in some cases; and
  • It is very difficult, except in the most general terms, to prescribe remedies for abating such hazards in a single rule.

These considerations make it very difficult to develop simple criteria for compliance that can apply to a broad range of industries.

On the other hand, industry and task specific guidelines can be developed more quickly and are more flexible, and can provide specific and helpful guidance for abatement to assist employees and employers in minimizing injuries. Guidelines are the most effective method available for reducing injuries quickly.

How do you expect OSHA's guidelines to reduce injuries and illnesses related to MSDs?

Injuries and illnesses related to MSDs have consistently declined over the last 10 years, even though there has not been a standard addressing them. Guidelines, such as OSHA's Meatpacking Guidelines, and voluntary industry efforts have been successful in reducing the injury and illness rates for these disorders. For example, on a national basis, rates for carpal tunnel injuries with days away from work have gone down by 39 percent from 1992 to 1999. For the same time period, rates for strains and sprains with days away from work have also gone down by 39 percent, and rates for back injuries with days away from work have gone down by 45 percent. In the meatpacking industry, with industry-specific guidelines and focused OSHA enforcement, rates of carpal tunnel injuries with days away from work have gone down 47 percent from 1992 to 1999. Over the same time period, rates of strains and sprains with days away from work have gone down by 61 percent, and rates for back injuries with days away from work have gone down by 64 percent. OSHA expects that industry-or-task-specific guidelines will further reduce injuries and illnesses as they are completed and implemented. OSHA's VPP (Voluntary Protection Program) participants, who have implemented safety and health programs, have injury and illness rates 53 percent below the average for their respective SIC codes.

What is a guideline and how does it differ from a standard?

A guideline is a tool to assist employers in recognizing and controlling hazards. It is voluntary. Failure to implement a guideline is not itself a violation of the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act. Guidelines that OSHA develops will provide information to help employers identify ergonomic hazards in their workplaces and implement feasible measures to control those hazards.

Guidelines are more flexible than standards. They can be developed quickly and can be changed easily as new information becomes available with scientific advances. Guidelines make it easier for employers to adopt innovative programs to suit their workplaces, rather than inflexible, one-size-fits-all solutions to issues that may be unique to the industry or facility.

Does having guidelines mean that OSHA is excluding a regulatory approach in the future?

OSHA will regularly review the injury and illness rates for MSDs and make decisions based on the best-available information about what approach to take to protect workers from MSDs. OSHA believes that guidelines currently offer the best method of continuing to bring down injury and illness rates for MSDs.

What industries will these guidelines cover?

OSHA will develop industry-or-task-specific guidelines for a select number of industries, taking into account injury and illness incidence rates as well as available information on what is known to work. These guidelines will be developed with input from others. As industry-or-task-specific guidelines are drafted, we will make public announcements and share the information as broadly as possible.

Will the guidelines cover agriculture, construction and maritime?

Guidelines offer the flexibility to go beyond general industry. The previous administration's ergonomics standard was limited in scope to general industry. In addition to the industry-specific guidelines that OSHA plans to develop, the agency will encourage other industries to develop their own guidelines to reduce MSDs.

Will OSHA use the new guidelines as a basis for enforcement?

No. An employer's failure to implement the new guidelines will not be a violation of the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act. Rather, OSHA intends that the guidelines will provide information to help employers identify ergonomic hazards in their workplaces and implement feasible measures to control such hazards. For this reason, OSHA anticipates that there would likely be no basis for a Section 5(a)(1) citation for employers with ergonomic hazards who effectively implement the ergonomics guidelines or other appropriate measures. OSHA will not be focusing its enforcement efforts on employers who have implemented effective ergonomic programs or who are making good-faith efforts to reduce ergonomic hazards.

What if I am an employer in an industry for which OSHA does not develop industry-specific guidelines?

Even if there are no guidelines specific to your industry, as an employer you still have an obligation under the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) to keep your workplace free from recognized serious hazards, including ergonomic hazards. OSHA will cite for ergonomic hazards under the General Duty Clause or issue ergonomic hazard letters where appropriate as part of its overall enforcement program. OSHA encourages employers where necessary to implement effective programs or other measures to reduce ergonomic hazards and associated MSDs. A great deal of information is currently available from OSHA, NIOSH, and various industry and labor organizations on how to establish an effective ergonomics program, and OSHA urges employers to avail themselves of these resources.

Does this mean OSHA will not use the General Duty Clause to cite for ergonomic hazards?

OSHA will use the General Duty Clause to cite employers for ergonomic hazards. Under the OSH Act's General Duty Clause, employers must keep their workplaces free from recognized serious hazards, including ergonomic hazards. This requirement exists whether or not there are voluntary guidelines.

What will the OSHA enforcement program entail?

OSHA has been assessing MSD-related issues in complaints, referrals, and targeted inspections. OSHA will continue to evaluate the findings of its inspections and issue General Duty Clause citations or hazard alert letters for ergonomics hazards where appropriate. OSHA will do the same when responding to worker complaints.

OSHA will conduct inspections for ergonomic hazards and issue citations under the General Duty Clause and issue ergonomic hazard alert letters where appropriate. OSHA will conduct follow-up inspections or investigations within 12 months of certain employers who receive ergonomic hazard alert letters.

OSHA will initiate a National Emphasis Program in the nursing home industry to guide inspections of nursing homes, and to focus significant effort on addressing ergonomic hazards related to patient lifting.

OSHA will conduct specialized training of appropriate staff on ergonomic hazards and abatement methods and designate 10 regional ergonomic coordinators and involve them in enforcement and outreach.

What about construction?

Where appropriate in the construction industry, OSHA will continue to evaluate MSD-related issues through targeted inspections and response to worker complaints.

Will OSHA notify employers who have high rates of MSDs?

Yes. As an adjunct to the Site Specific Targeting (SST), OSHA annually notifies employers in the OSHA Data Initiative who report high Lost Workday Injury and Illness rates at their establishment(s), and recommends that they seek assistance in addressing these workplace hazards. If employers report high rates of injuries which in some cases may be related to ergonomic issues, they will also be urged to seek assistance to address those hazards.

Source: OSHA

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Copyright ©2000-2016 Geigle Safety Group, Inc. All rights reserved. Federal copyright prohibits unauthorized reproduction by any means without permission. Students may reproduce materials for personal study. Disclaimer: This material is for training purposes only to inform the reader of occupational safety and health best practices and general compliance requirement and is not a substitute for provisions of the OSH Act of 1970 or any governmental regulatory agency. CertiSafety is a division of Geigle Safety Group, Inc., and is not connected or affiliated with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).