OSHA's Voluntary Plan Causes Concern

June 27, 2002

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When Congress repealed a mandatory ergonomics program in favor of a voluntary one, industry was relieved. Now many worry the new plan might lead to undue enforcement.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's new voluntary ergonomics plan has many concerned about its lack of specificity. While the rejected rule sought to make ergonomics programs a requirement for employers, the new plan emphasizes education and training in the prevention of musculoskeletal disorders. OSHA's new approach was announced in April after Congress repealed the mandatory regulation issued under the Clinton administration. While many business groups praise the voluntary nature of the plan, they point out that it's coupled with vows of enforcement under OSHA's General Duty clause. Furthermore, OSHA has yet to release industry- and job-specific guidelines, which it said it would develop with industry cooperation. Some industry officials worry that these guidelines could spur undue inspections and citations.

"The focus on education and training to prevent ergonomics injuries promises to be more effective than reliance on new regulations and litigation," says Jerry Jasinowski, National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) president. He admits, however, that he "has serious reservations about the potential for overzealous enforcement and unwarranted litigation." U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president Randel Johnson echoes his worries about "how new and increased enforcement (under the new guidelines) will play out," but calls the plan "a balanced approach."

OSHA has so far targeted three industries for its voluntary program—nursing homes, grocery stores and poultry processing plants—and is currently developing voluntary guidelines for these industries. However, no other industry-specific guidelines have been drafted and no schedule for addressing other industries has been set, says an OSHA spokesperson. The spokesperson did not disclose any information when asked if the guidelines would demand purchases such as grips for tools and hoisting equipment. Announcing the new approach in April, OSHA Administrator John Henshaw said the agency would immediately begin to draft "industry and task-specific guidelines to reduce and prevent ergonomics injuries" and "expects to begin releasing guidelines ready for application in selected industries this year."

The agency has vowed to focus on industries with the most ergonomics problems. The retail food industry certainly fits the bill. Grocery store workers report one of the highest numbers of ergonomics-related injuries, although the Food Marketing Institute says that the total number of injuries and illnesses in supermarkets has decreased by one-third since 1989. "While the rates in poultry processing aren't as high," says Henshaw, "workers still suffer from too many upper extremity disorders, such as tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome."

OSHA's recent addition of grocery stores and poultry plants to its target list, joining nursing homes, has earned some praise. According to Senator Kit Bond, R-Mo., this shows the "speed with which OSHA can respond to specific needs." According to Bond, the ranking Republican on the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, "OSHA is systematically dealing with the industries which have been shown to have the most problems. I expect this approach to show significant reductions as it gets implemented." The program's flexibility has also been lauded. This plan allows businesses to "implement ergonomics programs tailored to their particular needs," says Senator Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., former chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate subcommittee overseeing OSHA.

While some believe that the plan's voluntary aspect will motivate industry, some say that the approach is ineffectual. "Thousands of employers are already working to reduce ergonomics risks without government mandates," says Henshaw. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney disagrees, claiming the plan is "meaningless" and asserting that 1.8 million workers have endured ergonomics-related injuries since Congress repealed the Clinton regulation last year. AFL-CIO is pushing for legislation that would force OSHA to issue a mandatory ergonomics rule within two years.

Sources: New Ergonomics Plan Raises Industry Hackles
Purchasing, June 6, 2002
http://www.manufacturing.net/pur/index.asp?layout=articleWebzine&stt=000&articleid=CA218709&pubdate=6/6/2002

Grocery Stores, Poultry Plants Up Next for Ergonomics
Kent Hoover
Washington Business Journal, June 14, 2002
http://washington.bizjournals.com/washington/stories/2002/06/17/newscolumn4.html

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