Can You Handle It?

April 26, 2000
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This is the second part of Industrial Safety & Hygiene News' exclusive interview with agency Chief Charles Jeffress. Part one appeared in our May issue. Both parts are available on the Internet at www.ishn.com.

How realistic is it to expect OSHA to issue an ergonomics proposal and a safety and health program proposal, two very big standards, within possibly months of each other?

Neither of these standards is new. Jeffress didn't start these after he got here. Both have been in various stages of discussion and development for ten years now. So what you're really seeing is both [standards] coming to fruition at the same time. We are at the right point with each of them in terms of having a pretty good consensus developed by the stakeholders about best practices. It's time to go forward. In some ways it's fortuitous that they're coming at the same time.

How's that?

Both are program standards. [Ergonomics programs and safety and health programs] require some similar elements in terms of management leadership, employee involvement, and finding and fixing hazards. For businesses that haven't begun yet or are in the early stages of program development, it's going to enable those businesses to deal with both at one time and not have to do one thing one year, and a few years later come back and start something else.

Some people question the need for both standards. If you just issued a safety and health program rule, and companies followed that rule, wouldn't they be identifying and fixing their ergonomic problems, and training employees about ergonomics?

I understand conceptually that line of reasoning, because if you have a safety and health program in place that truly works, you'll address all the hazards. You could say that the safety and health program standard is all you need, you don't need process safety management, hazard communication, electrical safety, fall protection, or ergonomics.

But I think we all welcome specific guidance when we can get it. With respect to ergonomics, we can give more precise information on what kinds of factors to assess that might be causing problems. We can give more specific guidance on when to act. So, we have an obligation to have an ergonomics standard just like we do all these other standards.

What about the strain of potentially complying with both of these standards at the same time? One of our readers says he has hundreds if not thousands of work stations to assess for the ergonomics standard alone. He says it took years to do assessments for lockout-tagout.

I guess I would ask that reader, "What is it about his safety and health program currently that he's going to have to fix? Does he not have management leadership? Does he not have employee involvement? Is he not finding hazards and fixing hazards?"

My guess is if he has the kind of program in place that he says he has, where he is looking at all these work stations for lockout-tagout issues, then he really is not going to have much to do on the safety and health program standard. He might not have anything to do at all. The ergonomics standard is going to require some additional assessments, I'm sure.

How about smaller companies that may have to do both?

There are a couple of things to remember regarding the ergonomics standard: The requirement of management commitment is not something that takes a major expenditure of funds. And, in a small business where you've got 25 to 50 employees, you're talking about a relatively short orientation time for initial training about potential job hazards. You're talking about a day or two to have people become aware of what the potential hazards are.

Beyond that, there's no obligation unless somebody gets hurt. Severty-five percent of American businesses report no injuries in the course of a year. So, for most people the ergonomics standard is not going to trigger immediate action. It's only when somebody gets hurt that they have to respond.

Will there be some additional requirements on business? Yes. But I believe that the investment pays off. Small businesses that have put in ergonomics programs have found that they increase productivity and reduce workers' compensation and medical costs. You have to believe that the up-front investment is going to pay a dividend.

There are always people who are reluctant to make investments when they can't see an immediate payoff. It's going to be hard for them to have the faith that they have avoided some injury and know that it has paid off. If they will talk to other businesses of their same size in their industry, I think they'll find out that it's a good investment. They don't have to hear it from me.

You've said in the past that only 30 percent of businesses have safety and health programs. And you've said 75 percent of businesses have no injuries each year. So what do you need safety and health programs for, anyway?

Most of these businesses that don't have safety and health programs are small businesses. The statistic that is very troubling to me is this: If you work in a small business with fewer than ten employees, you're more than twice as likely to be killed on the job than if you work for a large business. So if we're going to make a difference in the workplace, it's important that we reach small businesses in ways we haven't reached small businesses before.

Some small business people will see safety and health rules as a burden. But the people who put programs in place, even in small businesses, report to us that they are a success. They are a productive investment, not a burden.

How are our readers with existing ergonomics programs going to know if their programs qualify to be "grandfathered" into the ergonomics standard?

They should have confidence that they are in compliance if they have a program in place and it's clear that the program is authorized and supported by the leadership of the company; that employees feel free to report problems; that employees have been trained in what kind of symptoms to look for; and the employer is responding to those concerns and instituting solutions where possible.

We have found people in violation of the general duty clause where they had written [ergonomics] programs in place, but for months people had been complaining about an issue, and the company hadn't done anything about it.

We haven't found problems with people who have programs in place and are working on issues and injuries are still occurring. Whether injuries are still occurring is not the measure of success. Are you keeping workers informed of what the concerns are out there, and are you responding proactively when you hear the concerns - that's the measure of success.

We know in ergonomics no one solution will be good for everybody. It will take tests of different ideas to determine what works. We're looking at the effort being made to solve problems.

It is a judgment call. Whether you can trust an OSHA inspector to have good judgment is really the question people are asking when you say, "How do you know when you're in compliance?" I can tell people we're going to ensure compliance officers use good judgment, we're going to make sure they're well trained, but for most people the proof is going to be when they see that compliance officer in the plant, making an assessment.

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