OK, we all know about OSHA’s new ergonomics standard. And we know about the high cost of ergonomic-related injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome and bad backs. These are strong motivators to get going on an ergonomics program — if you already haven’t.

But throwing money at a problem isn’t necessarily the answer.

Spending too much money to solve an ergonomics problem can result in not protecting your workforce against more severe hazards. Plus, in today’s do-more-with-less business climate, spending money unwisely may even cost you your job. As a result, conducting a feasibility study now to determine the best solution for each ergonomic problem you uncover in your workplace may be your best approach.

Remember, after the ergonomics standard goes into effect this coming October, your priorities will be determined by employee reports of injuries. Employers covered by the standard will have to quickly respond to reports to determine if a musculoskeletal incident has occurred, and if so, whether the employee’s job meets the action trigger for further corrective action.

Hazard assessment

The first step you can take now to identify ergonomic hazards is to perform a hazard assessment using one of these methods:

  • OSHA 200 Log of injuries and illnesses;

  • Process Hazard Analyses (PHAs) and Job Safety Analyses (JSAs);

  • Prestart-up and Restart-up Reviews (PSSRs/RSSRs);

  • Periodic walkthroughs and inspections;

  • Audits; and

  • Applying OSHA’s Basic Screening Tool

    Using these tools, which are explained in detail in the sidebar, you can identify ergonomics problems in your facility.

Prioritize the hazard

Once hazards have been identified, the next step is to determine a priority-based action plan so your ergonomics team can spend its time efficiently. Some of the things to consider when prioritizing ergonomics hazards include:

Probability and severity of injury: Gather data from incident investigation reports to identify “how often” and “how bad” the injury was to determine a course of action. Ask the question, “If I did nothing, would I be concerned about this injury in the future?”

Cost of the injury: Use workers’ compensation data, lost productivity data, time spent by other employees covering tasks for the injured worker, incident investigation time, ergonomics analysis time, and business interruption costs to determine the real cost of the ergonomics injury.

Resource requirements: This includes costs for engineering design and implementation, consultants, in-house personnel, vendors, or other resources.

Number of people affected: This includes the number of people doing the same job for which there is a potential ergonomic injury.

Cost of the engineering intervention or fix: This includes tooling, design, implementation, training, equipment, or furniture.

Longevity of the benefits: How long will the job exist? Is the manufacturing process at the beginning or the end of the product lifecycle?

Space requirements: Is there space available for the “footprint” of the engineering change?

Importance to employees: Do employees care about the change? Do they “buy into” the change? Will there be an improvement in morale?

Productivity: Can you assess an improvement in productivity in pounds/day of product or number of widgets made?

Once numerical assessments have been assigned to these variables, they can be weighted to determine a composite assessment. Then you can prioritize the ergonomics hazard that needs to be corrected first.

Engineering solutions & administrative controls

The goal of any solution is to eliminate the hazard by engineering design. Engineering solutions may include redesigning, modifying, or replacing machines or tools; mechanizing certain work functions; and re-designing, modifying, or replacing furniture.

If the ergonomics hazard cannot be eliminated “by design,” then consider implementing administrative controls. Administrative controls include such things as monitoring certain jobs and performing a Job Hazard Analysis, rotating jobs, alternating work tasks, evaluating and implementing work-rest cycles, performing ergonomic training for awareness and detection of hazards, and potentially longer or more frequent work breaks. Strategize the options to implement the best mix of administrative controls if the ergonomics hazard cannot be eliminated.

Bringing it together

Assessing and prioritizing hazards allows you to determine the best bang for your ergonomic buck. And if the expenditure to correct a hazard during the normal cost of business is low, it makes implementing ergonomics even easier.

Sidebar: Reviewing OSHA's standard

All general industry employers must comply with the rules — 6.1 million worksites with more than 102 million workers. OSHA estimates about 60 million of these workers are employed in workplaces with no current ergo programs. The standard does not cover workplaces in construction, maritime, agriculture, and railroad industries.

You must provide all your employees basic information about:

  • Common musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and their signs and symptoms;

  • The importance of reporting MSDs, and signs and symptoms, as soon as possible;

  • How to report MSDs in the workplace;

  • Risk factors, job and work activities related to MSD hazards;

  • A brief description of OSHA’s ergonomics standard.

You must provide this information in written form, or if all employees have access, in electronic form. The information must be posted in a conspicuous place in your workplace.

You don’t have to take any further action until one of your employees report an MSD or persistent signs or symptoms of an MSD.

The standard went into effect January 16, 2001. You must begin to distribute information on the standard to your employees and begin receiving and responding to reports of injuries no later than October 14, 2001. Other compliance time frames relate to requirements beyond the initial employee briefing.

Sidebar: Methods of ergonomic assessment - These tools are available to help you determine ergonomic hazards:

OSHA 200 Log

Examine your OSHA 200 Log for strains, sprains, awkward positions, unsafe positions, repetitive motion, back injuries, etc. When looking at these entries, look for what tasks employees were performing, when they were being performed, and how they were being performed to see if there is anything that could have been done to prevent the injury or illness.

Process Hazard Analyses (PHAs)

Job Safety Analyses (JSAs)

Prestart-up & Restart-up Safety Reviews (PSSRs/RSSRs)

From a proactive standpoint, PHAs/JSAs are key detection tools before a process goes into start-up. This analysis allows for the specific examination of OSHA 200 Log entries and what engineering controls could be implemented to prevent reoccurrence of the injury or illness. Just before going into start-up, the process should be examined once more to see if all engineering changes have been implemented using the PSSR/RSSR procedure. This is essentially a punch-list of what people said they would do versus what they actually did to respond to action items from the PHA/JSA (such as mitigating identified ergonomic hazards).

Periodic walkthroughs and inspections

Most safety professionals conduct walkthroughs and inspections of their plants on a periodic basis. This is where key issues can be discovered in the areas of ergonomics. Look for bending, reaching, lifting, awkward postures, and twisting that can be prevented through design and training.


Audits are very useful tools because they measure what you actually do versus what you say you do. If you have an ergonomics program in place, an audit will reveal how well you measure against the standard you have set for your plant. Be careful not to set the standard too high so that it is not achievable. Be realistic and reasonable in implementing an ergonomics program.

OSHA’s Basic Screening Tool

OSHA’s standard includes a two-page checklist that identifies the five risk factors that could lead to a musculoskeletal disorder hazard:

Repetition — repeating the same motions every few seconds for two hours at a time, or using a device, such as a keyboard and/or mouse, steadily for more than four hours daily.

Force — lifting more than 75 pounds at any one time, or pushing/pulling with more than 20 pounds of initial force (such as pushing a 65-pound box across a tile floor for more than two hours per day). Awkward postures — repeatedly raising or working with the hands above the head for more than two hours per day, or working with the back, neck or wrists bent for more than two hours total per day.

Contact stress — using the hands or knees as a hammer more than ten times an hour for more than two hours total per day.

Vibration — using tools or equipment that typically have high vibration levels (such as chainsaws, jack hammers, percussive tools) for more than 30 minutes per day or tools with moderate vibration levels (such as jib saws, grinders, etc.) for more than two hours per day.