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Hearings Set for Ergonomics Proposal

OSHA's proposed ergonomic standard could be a pain in the neck for manufacturers.

 by Karen M. Koenig

Hearings are set to begin on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's proposed ergonomics standard which will affect all general industry manufacturing production employers, including plastics manufacturers.

According to OSHA, the proposed standard would require employers to address ergonomics for manual handling or manufacturing production jobs. Emplyers would also need to "fix other jobs where employees experience work-related musculoskeletal disorders." OSHA defines a musculoskeletal disorder as "an injury or disorder of the muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, cartilage and spinal discs."

Under the proposal, one musculoskeletal disorder reported in a workplace requires employers to set up a comprehensive ergonomics program and compensate employees who are out of work. The estimated costs to manufacturers are: an average of $150 per year for fixing workstations; and a total of $4.2 billion per year, "including $875 million now lost by workers whose income and benefits are not fully covered by workers' compensation." This $4.2 billion is more than two times greater than the original draft estimate of $1.75 billion.

OSHA predicts the proposal will affect 1.6 million worksites.

Manufacturers' opinions mixed

There are mixed feelings among manufacturers regarding the ergonomics standard. While no one will argue against the idea of protecting more than 300,000 workers from disabling injuries and saving the general workforce $9 billion in workmans' compensation costs, the proposed standard has drawn criticism from many manufacturers who question if the cost might be too high. Small manufacturers in particular say they will most likely be unable to bear the cost of changing their manufacturing process or purchasing new machinery to comply with the regulation.

In response, Charles Jeffress, assistant secretary of labor, has publicly stated, "This proposal includes some unique provisions to expand flexibility for employers because one size doesn't fit all. We've given employers a Quick Fix option and included a grandfather clause, both designed to limit what employers need to do while effectively protecting workers. Three-quarters of general industry employers would not need to do anything until a documented, work-related injury actually occurs."

But how does an employer determine if the MSD was indeed caused at work or was the cumulative effects of something which happened off site.Who is responsible?

In answer to this concern, OSHA has included in the proposal two "screens" for determining if the injury is work related: if the job's physical activities are reasonably likely to cause or contribute to the MSD reported; and if these activities are a core element of the job.

Two obvious questions to be put before the panel at the hearings are what constitutes "reasonably likely" and how does an employer objectively measure an activity's contribution to the MSDs.

I'll be interested to hear the answers.

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