New Ergonomics Twist for OSHA

Article excerpt

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has proposed a national ergonomics standard for American businesses. Ergonomics is defined by OSHA as the science of fitting the job to the worker. It's designed to prevent jobrelated injuries, commonly referred to as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), repetitive stress injuries or cumulative trauma disorders. The proposal, carrying an estimated price tag for U.S. business of $4.1 billion per year, would require employers to designate management leadership and training for ergonomics programs, and to report and correct any workplace conditions causing repetitive motion or stress/strain types of injuries.

OSHA's proposal concerns HR professionals, who worry about the affect of new federal regulations on their companies' bottom line. Brent Clark, a partner with Chicago-based law firm Seyfarth, Shaw, Fairweather and Geraldson and chairman of their environmental, safety and health law practice, says, "If this proposal goes into effect it will regulate everyone, even those who don't traditionally deal with OSHA. All white-collar industries would be covered by the standard. And OSHA will require modification of the workplace to comply with it."

Clark continues, "This proposal is meant to put the burden of proof onto the employer-meaning that the employer, rather than OSHA, would have to demonstrate a lack of injury danger or a feasible means of abatement for any existing problems. So it's wise to start paying attention now, even if you already have an ergonomics program or have never had these types of problems before."

Brett Weiss, principal of Workplace Risk Consulting, an ergonomics advisory firm based in San Francisco, sees the proposal as an opportunity for HR to reexamine potential workplace MSDs and reduce or eliminate injury-related costs. "For companies that are smart enough to be proactive and fix ergonomics problems, productivity will increase and the company will save money," he says. "And human resources professionals should keep in mind that it's not just about OSHA regulations. An OSHA fine isn't very large compared to a lawsuit by an injured worker."

Weiss recommends that HR begin addressing ergonomics concerns by assessing potential for workplace injury in four steps. First, identify hazards in the workplace. "These hazards aren't always obvious " Weiss says. "It could be a desk from the '70s that ought to have a keyboard tray and doesn't."

Second, educate employees about the risk of MSDs and what they can do to prevent hazards. …