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Is your business OSHA-ready?

Small businesses can save money by following some of OSHA’s standards, regardless of the law.

With a simple change of philosophy, a Kannapolis, N.C.-based textile manufacturer reduced its workers’ compensation costs by nearly 50 percent over three years. How did they do it? Well, in the early ’90s, Fieldcrest-Cannon developed a simple yet significant ergonomics program to help reduce injuries and illnesses related to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).

First, the company purchased adjustable chairs and reworked material-handling boxes to eliminate the need for excessive bending. Reports of back and shoulder pain dropped immediately. Then management encouraged employees to design a new bagging system to improve worker safety and productivity. Fieldcrest-Cannon’s ergonomics program improved productivity significantly, and employees experienced fewer injuries.

The company has since been purchased by a larger textile manufacturer, Pillowtex Corp., and has implemented a more extensive ergonomics plan.

“We credit the success of our ergonomics program to total employee involvement,” said Tim Hallice, director of risk management and safety for Pillowtex. “Our ergonomics team meets monthly to discuss suggestions on how to update and improve our ergonomics program.”

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimates that in companies with 20 or fewer employees, nearly 325,000 employees suffer from MSDs each year. And the cost of these injuries, including productivity losses and worker’s compensation claims, is a whopping $45 billion a year.

That figure prompted OSHA to propose an ergonomics standard that would require companies to set up compliant ergonomics programs, focusing on how to prevent, evaluate, and manage work-related MSDs. Culminating more than 10 years of study, public hearings, meetings, and publications, the Ergonomics Program Standard has been put on the back burner by Congress and the Bush administration. The standards are generally denounced by business leaders but praised by labor unions, both locally and nationally.

“We have so little information on which things trigger musculoskeletal injuries and what solves ergonomic problems,” says Wendy Lechner, legislative director of Printing Industries of America (PIA) in Alexandria, Va. “It remains a mystery at what point, if any, a job task can actually cause a disorder. How then can we mandate a fix if we don’t even know which fixes work?”

Congress, with President Bush’s support, repealed a regulation issued by the Clinton administration that required employers to establish programs to reduce soft-tissue injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome. The repeal outraged the AFL-CIO, which estimates that more than 400,000 workers have suffered from ergonomics-related injuries since the regulation was overturned last March.

“It’s a shame that the Bush administration has sided with big business and has failed to properly protect workers from job-related injuries,” says Peg Seminario, the AFL-CIO’s health and safety director. “These injuries have cost companies nearly $45 billion a year in productivity losses and workers’ compensation claims.”

“Adopting one ergonomics standard that every industry has to comply with would be impossible,” counters Andras Kalisperis, legislative director of the Small Business Legislative Council, a Washington, D.C.-based independent coalition of nearly 80 trade and professional associations. “OSHA’s draft proposal is really a one-size-fits-all standard that does not reflect the circumstances in individual workplaces”

According to the council, this controversial regulation would have applied to nearly every American business, costing firms up to $125 billion per year to comply. This would have hit small businesses the hardest since smaller firms don’t have the resources to hire experts and lawyers to aid them in complying with the rule.

“Small business is strongly opposed to the ergonomics rule because it’s extremely vague and ambiguous,” Kalisperis says. “You can’t have one set of rules that applies to all businesses; it’s just not cost-effective or fair to the mom-and-pop operations around the country.”


Ergonomics is essentially the science of adapting work tasks to fit an individual’s physical needs, while preventing injuries caused by repetitive motion, awkward posture, force, or vibration. Among workplace injuries, MSDs are the most troublesome, accounting for one-third of all money spent on workers’ compensation costs.

OSHA contends the standards would cost $4.2 billion a year for industries, but would also save employers $9 billion annually in medical costs and lost work time by preventing 300,000 injuries per year.

“To prevent musculoskeletal disorders, the elements of the work environment should fit together, so you need to look at the entire environment,” explains Duane Daugherty, vice president of Medcor, a Chicago-based workplace health management company. “It’s imperative to look at the root cause of the problem-the way seating fits, whether people have adjustable work surfaces, and the information surface (desktop) itself.”

The purpose of OSHA’s Ergonomics Program Standard is to reduce MSDs in the following areas of the body: neck, shoulder, elbow, forearm, wrist, hand, abdomen (hernia only), back, knee, ankle, and foot. The standard does not address injuries caused by slips, trips, falls, or vehicular and other accidents.

OSHA’s Ergonomics Program Standard would affect all employers with 11 or more employees (including part-time or temporary), except those who are already covered by OSHA standards. The latter group includes construction, maritime, agriculture, and railroad operations. Program standards also require employers to identify and reduce specified workplace ergonomic hazards, such as intensive keying for more than four hours a day, working with one’s hands above the head for more than two hours a day.


Because OSHA’s strict guidelines only kick in when there’s a complaint, many experts say they are misplaced. The consensus is that the best way to avoid trouble is to ensure that a business employee’s health and safety isn’t jeopardized in the first place. Once an injury occurs, very little can be done to comfort the afflicted. One of the main reasons OSHA standards received such resistance is that they are reactive rather than proactive. Will a more proactive set of guidelines eventually be passed?

In an attempt to compromise with both labor unions and business groups, the Bush administration has appointed John Henshaw to head up OSHA. Labor unions like the fact that Henshaw is a nationally known safety expert who earned the respect of Monsanto’s unions when he directed that Fortune 500 company’s safety and health programs. Businesses like the fact that unlike his predecessor, Charles Jeffress, Henshaw comes from the private sector and not government.

“Henshaw worked at companies that had ergonomic programs in place, so presumably he favors bringing these safety practices to the workplace,” Medcor’s Daugherty says.

The only stipulation, according to some experts, is that Labor Secretary Elaine Chao has more of a wait-and-see attitude concerning ergonomic guidelines. “Given Chao’s track record thus far, I doubt she’ll listen to Henshaw’s ergonomic plans,” AFL-CIO’s Seminario says.

Bush also nominated an outspoken opponent of OSHA’s ergonomic regulation, Eugene Scalia, as solicitor of the Department of Labor. As solicitor, Scalia–son of conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia–will be in charge of interpreting OSHA regulations. Scalia’s nomination is in doubt, however; the Wall Street Journal recently reported that key democratic congressional leaders will block his nomination.

“The current administration is talking out of both sides of [its] mouth,” Seminario adds, concerning the nominations of Henshaw, Chao, and Scalia.

Experts speculate that OSHA and employers could reach a compromise and draft a scaled-down version of the regulations within a year. Chao told the Washington Post that she’ll pursue other actions to handle workplace injuries and seek a more comprehensive approach to ergonomics, “which may include new rulemaking.”

The debate merely comes down to whether businesses have the freedom to develop their own internal ergonomic program or whether OSHA mandates a federal ergonomics program by which all American businesses have to abide.

“Opponents and backers of the ergonomic regulation have different, but very significant points,” Daugherty says. “This issue needs to be adequately addressed and permanently resolved one way or another.”

A bill backed by leading Senate moderates would direct the Department of Labor to issue a new ergonomics regulation within the next two years. It addresses two of the main objections to the previous regulation. The rule would not apply to soft-tissue injuries that are aggravated but not specifically caused by working. Also, it prohibits treating ergonomic-related injuries differently from other injuries covered by state workers’ compensation laws.

Right now, only California and Washington have ergonomic guidelines, but both have lax enforcement of these guidelines on all levels.

What can businesses do?

Other than government regulations, are there solutions for ergonomic-related injuries that would satisfy both labor unions and the private business sector? The solution may be to provide incentives for companies to solve their own ergonomics issues, even though some of these incentives already exist in the form of reduced costs and improved productivity. According to Daugherty, many companies have come up with their own ergonomic solutions that have been extremely cost-effective.

Take 3M for example. A 1990 corporate analysis of the Minnesota-based company’s injury and illness data showed that 35 percent of all OSHA-recordable cases were related to work-related MSDs.

In 1991, 3M began aggressively monitoring keyboard use for all its employees. They bought ergonomically correct workstations with adjustable chairs and tables for all office workers. Like many large companies, 3M hired experts to write its ergonomic standards, which included such requirements as regular breaks from typing. Managers are responsible for implementing these standards.

Over the next five years, 3M saw a 22 percent decrease in work-related musculoskeletal cases, and it credits employee involvement for properly implementing its ergonomics program.

What can businesses do about correcting ergonomic-related injuries without breaking the bank?

Look at what Fieldcrest-Cannon did before Pillowtex purchased the company. Essentially, it was a small textile company that had to be creative when developing a cost-effective yet comprehensive ergonomic program.

“Fieldcrest-Cannon cut MSDs from 121 in 1993 to 21 in 1998,” Daugherty says. “It credits this success to worker involvement in designing systems to limit the need for workers to bend and reach. It ultimately saved the company about $240,000 per year.”

There is no magic formula for avoiding workplace aches and pains–the solutions are as varied as the problems for management and their employees. While standards and regulations will most likely continue to emerge from OSHA, so do the debates on how–or even whether–to enforce ergonomic guidelines.

The question for most American businesses is, “Do these regulations make good business sense?” According to Tim Hallice of Pillowtex: “Companies need to create their own ergonomic standard, because if the federal government does it, it will just turn into another complicated bureaucracy. That doesn’t solve the problem.”

OSHA’s ergonomic guidelines

Though not legally binding, the OSHA guidelines are in place to help companies reduce musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) developed by workers. MSDs are a large category of disorders of the muscles, nerves, tendons, ligaments, joints, or spinal discs.

Worker-related MSDs usually develop following repetitive movements such as reaching, bending, lifting, or using continuous force. Typical symptoms include persistent pain, swelling, tingling, numbness, or loss of movement around the affected area.

Employers must discuss ergonomic issues with their employees. Employees need to be aware of work-related MSDs, their signs and systems, and the importance of reporting them. This means that all current and new employees should be trained in these areas. In addition, if an employee suffers an injury and his job exposes him to risk factors, an ergonomic program should be implemented to address the exposure.

What is an ergonomic program? According to the OSHA guidelines, an ergonomic program should include:

Management leadership Employee participation MSD management Job hazard analysis Hazard reduction Ongoing training

An ergonomic program needs to be supported by management while educating employees to make changes themselves. To meet the needs of each individual, additional training and education is required on the implementation of administrative, engineering, and work-practice controls to decrease the exposure to risk factors.

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