Many companies celebrated in April when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced it would combat workplace ergonomic injuries through a new strategy of guidance, information and assistance, rather than heavy-handed rules on businesses.
OSHA's voluntary guidelines re-place the stricter standards issued by the Clinton administration, which were overturned by Congress last year. The industry-specific guides will be issued later this year, beginning with jobs that have the highest injury rates. (YATL, May 2002)
While the voluntary rules are a big win for business, they aren't a license to ignore the issue. Employers still have an interest in reducing their employees' exposure to repetitive-stress injuries on the job. Not only can they hurt your company's productivity and morale, but they also increase workers' comp and health costs. Another threat: OSHA still has the power to punish your company for blatant ergonomic problems.
Fines, penalties still possible
Count on OSHA to crack down on bad actors by coordinating inspections with a legal strategy designed for successful prosecution. The agency will create and dispatch special ergonomics inspection teams that will work closely with Labor Department attorneys to prosecute cases.
To go after ergonomic violators, OSHA can use its "general duty clause," which requires employers to provide workplaces free from recognized hazards that are causing or likely to cause serious injury or death. The agency has used the clause more than 550 times to cite companies for ergonomic violations.
Two examples: A settlement be-tween OSHA and nursing home chain Beverly Enterprises required the company to adopt education and training to reduce back injuries for health care workers who lift patients. At a Pepperidge Farm plant, OSHA inspectors identified 175 instances in which repetitive-motion movements by em-ployees who packaged cookies caused ergonomic injuries. In court, however, the company's ergonomics plan was judged to be adequate.
Lessons from the past
OSHA's handling of the Pepperidge Farm case gives insight into what its new enforcement plans may target, attorneys say. And there are lessons for employers.
First, the case showed that OSHA doesn't need anything but the general duty clause to confront employers who allegedly expose their employees to ergonomic hazards. Second, it proved that an employer could avoid paying fines by having an effective ergonomics program in place and making some small changes to the workplace.
Examples: Keep work tools and materials within easy reach to avoid stretching. Educate employees in proper lifting techniques. Position computer monitors and keyboards to ease neck, hand and eyestrain. Provide microbreaks so workers can stretch and massage their hands.
For more compliance advice, plus details on OSHA's new guidelines, visit www.osha.gov/ergonomics.
Free report: Ergonomic solutions for office workers
You & the Law is offering a free, three-page report that includes dozens of detailed solutions to help computer users avoid ergonomic injuries. These include proper use of chairs, keyboards, monitors and lighting. To have the report, Computer Workstations: Ergonomic Solutions, sent to you via e-mail, send a request to YATLreport@nibm.net and be sure to put "ergonomic solutions" in the subject line.
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