Also called “human engineering,” ergonomics has been defined as the applied science concerned with the characteristics of people that need to be considered in designing and arranging workspaces so that people and things can interact safely and effectively.
Zans spoke on the topic at the Conference on Worker Safety and OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) Compliance, sponsored by Keye Productivity Center.
Central to his presentation was the definition of “non-traditional” injuries.
“For years, business owners, insurance companies, state and federal entities, and medical providers have witnessed a rising number of injuries in the workplace,” he stated. “Many of these were not ‘traditional’ injuries that resulted from accidents and acute trauma.” These types of injuries are often referred to as repetitive motion injuries (RMIs). According to Zans, they have the following characteristics. They are:
He notes that RMIs affect bones, joints, and soft tissues, and that they may affect more women than men.
“It is not necessarily the movement that causes harm,” said Zans. “It could also be the force applied, an awkward posture, or external factors.”
According to Zans, RMI reporting has increased 190% since 1983 and the incidence of reporting RMIs is increasing at an annual rate of 26.5%. He added that 62% of all work-related illnesses and injuries are associated with RMIs, and that workers’ compensation insurance carriers estimate that the total cost of a repetitive motion injury is five times the direct medical costs.
That is why he said that OSHA is vigorously emphasizing and enforcing ergonomic compliance in the workplace.
“OSHA will come out and talk to employees, using a ‘Symptom Survey Checklist,’” said Zans. “This questionnaire is also a great way to do a follow-up with an employee, and it shows that something is being done to correct the problem.”
NO NATIONAL STANDARDZans said there have been three attempts to pass a national ergonomics standard, and all have failed because of “partisan politics.”
“Clinton signed the standard, but Bush struck it down,” he noted.
Zans said that the state of Washington went ahead and developed its own standard, which was the model for a national standard. But because of a “Congressional Review Clause,” any new standard would have to have radical changes from the previous proposed standard in order to be voted on by Congress.
Zans believes that the last standard that failed to pass was sound and workable, and that the future of a national ergonomics standard is very bleak. “There may never be an ergonomics standard before OSHA because our hands are tied by the review process.”
He added that the Department of Labor wants to use the “General Duty Clause” to replace any type of national standard. The purpose of the clause is to require all employers to look for and abate hazards, even when OSHA has not created specific standards to cover them.
Zans said there are basic elements to developing a workplace ergonomics standard. One is the “action trigger.” The action trigger is “activated” when an employee complains of signs or symptoms of RMIs or has been diagnosed by a health care professional as having an RMI and the illness has been found to be work related. Zans said the action trigger in the first proposed ergonomics standard was based on one incident in 18 months.
“One incident is not a pattern,” he said. “This was a red herring.”
He said that at least two or more of the same incidents in 18 months should make a company a candidate for an ergonomics program, but for now it is a moot point.
“The Democrats want to get a standard through, but it doesn’t matter. OSHA doesn’t need a standard,” said Zans.
For more information, visit www.osha.gov (website).
Publication date: 08/12/2002