Three years ago OSHA took its first crack at an ergonomics standard, floating a package of draft documents that measured more than an inch thick. The agency "intended to facilitate informed discussion," according to a cover letter at the time. Dozens of industry groups responded by signing a letter to Congress urging Republicans to kill the rule. In May, 1995, OSHA's top ergonomics official resigned, citing personal frustrations. One month later, then OSHA chief Joe Dear announced that the time was not right to pursue a standard. Since then, a series of Congressional restrictions has prevented the agency from issuing a proposal. The current ban runs out at the end of September, 1998.
But OSHA can issue a draft document, which it wants to do to keep the ergonomics issue moving ahead. And this time around, the draft should be no more than 10-15 pages, according to David Cochran, the University of Nebraska ergonomist who is on loan to OSHA to spearhead the standards-writing effort.
Cochran wants to dispel several rumors surrounding work on the rule, which is currently being done by a team of 15-20 agency employees. The requirements OSHA will release in May are a draft, not a formal proposal, and certainly a long way from a final rule to be enforced by inspectors. "I've heard misinformation implying that a final standard will be out by the end of the year. That's not true," he says.
Cochran has also heard claims that OSHA will come out with requirements that are heavy on specifications-rules limiting computer operation or use of vibrating tools to between two to four hours a day, for example, or eliminating jobs where loads heavier than 25 pounds are lifted. "We won't get specific like that," he says.
In fact, right now Cochran does not plan to issue any appendices to the standard. OSHA's 1995 draft standard was only 26 pages, but included four appendices on how to manage an ergonomics program that ran hundreds of pages. These appendices-containing very detailed voluntary recommendations, such as a four-point rating system for grading ergonomic assessments-were assailed by critics as de-facto regulations.
Here's what Cochran had to say regarding key issues for employers:
Who will the standard cover? The scope is still up in the air. The broadest possibility would be requirements covering all of general manufacturing, and perhaps some service sector jobs involving heavy lifting and intensive keyboard data entry. A standard that singles out one specific industry with documented problems, such as meatpacking or poultry processing, is not in the cards, says Cochran.
What will employers be required to do? Here OSHA wants to be flexible, with the size of a facility determining compliance steps. Cochran envisions a standard that would allow small businesses, say a small bakery or dry cleaner, to address ergonomics problems informally, without the need for a written program. Larger operations with multiple ergonomics issues take a more formal, documented approach, he says.
Compliance would basically follow common ergonomics guidelines: Identify problems, develop solutions, monitor for improvements, train employees, and take care of employee medical problems.
When must employers go into action? OSHA is wrestling with this question, according to Cochran. OSHA could require employers, in the absence of any reported problems, to periodically look at injury records and workers' compensation cases for evidence of musculoskeletal disorders. Or, the agency could take California's approach, which calls for employers to act only after two or more employees in the same job report similar ergonomic-related complaints. Cochran says "it's not good" to wait until you have a "body count," but OSHA is considering this "trigger" option to lessen the regulatory load on employers.
OSHA is keenly aware of the burden an ergonomics standard could pose, according to Cochran. One of the ergonomics team members, Gary Orr, is a professional ergonomist with industry and consulting experience. "He knows what's reasonable, flexible, and what employers will do," says Cochran. "He's seen a lot of workplaces."
Already, several versions of the draft text have been discarded because they were too burdensome, adds Cochran.
Will existing ergonomics programs be grandfathered? "If a company has a viable, functioning program, they shouldn't bother changing it," says Cochran. But what's a "viable" program? "Defining a viable program is a tough problem," he says.
If the standard is going to be short and flexible, how will OSHA help companies that want specific direction? The agency will need to emphasize compliance outreach assistance and consultation, says Cochran. He hopes other groups will lend a hand, too, such as NIOSH and industry trade associations.
Is more research needed before OSHA proceeds with a standard? Congressional Republicans want the National Institutes of Health to fund a study which would be conducted by the National Academy of Sciences on the science surrounding ergonomics. This could delay an OSHA standard for several years. But Cochran asserts, "A huge body of research says (musculoskeletal disorders reported by employees) are overwhelmingly work related. I think the science is firm. There is not a question in my mind that this is work-related. The high incidences in particular industries are not from employees going out bowling; it's the jobs they have in common."