After years of debate and anticipation, OSHA finally released its proposed ergonomics rules this past November. Here are answers to some of your key questions, based on information provided by the agency.

"Am I covered?"
OSHA's ergo requirements focus on jobs in general industry. Construction, agriculture, and maritime industries are not covered. If you have manual handling or manufacturing production jobs, you need to set up a basic ergonomics program targeted for workers in these specific jobs. Other jobs where work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) occur are covered, too.

"What's a basic ergonomics program?"
A basic program calls for: 1) Assigning someone to be responsible for the program; 2) Providing employees in problem jobs with information about common hazards, MSD signs and symptoms, how to report problems, and OSHA's standard; and 3) Setting up a system for MSD reporting by employees.

"What happens if an employee reports a musculoskeletal disorder?"
First, you must determine that the case is job-related. For an MSD case to be covered by this standard it must be reported after the standard takes effect, and be directly related to the physical work the employee regularly performs. It must also meet the criteria of an OSHA recordable case - it is either diagnosed by a health care professional or reported by the employee, plus it involves medical treatment, days away from work, restricted work, or job transfer/rotation.

"What do I do if the case is work-related?"
You have two choices: Set up a full ergonomics program for that job or try what OSHA calls a "quick fix."

"What's a full ergonomics program?"
This program includes the parts of the basic program plus job hazard analysis and control, training, MSD management, program evaluation, and recordkeeping.

"What's a quick fix?"
It's a way to avoid some of the burdens of the full standard. But keep in mind there's no guarantee a quick fix will always work. First, you must take care of the employee reporting the MSD. Work restrictions, medical treatment or other steps might be needed to prevent their condition from worsening. Then, watch the employee perform his or her job. Look for risk factors. Ask the employee for input and recommendations. You must apply quick fix controls within 90 days after the MSD is reported. Check back within the next 30 days to see if the hazard has been eliminated. Document the steps you've taken. And during the initial 90-day period provide hazard information to the employee.

"What if the quick fix doesn't work?"
If the MSD hazards are not eliminated within the 120-day period, or if another MSD covered by the standard is reported in that job within three years, you have to set up a complete ergonomics program.

"Is issuing a back belt considered a quick fix?"
No. OSHA says personal protective equipment can be used to supplement engineering, work practice and administrative controls, or can be used alone if other means aren't feasible. But back belts and wrist splints are not considered PPE under the ergo standard. Examples of PPE are anti-vibration gloves and carpet layers' knee pads.

"What if I already have an ergonomics program?"
You can keep doing what you're doing as long as you meet several qualifications. Your program must satisfy the basics of each of OSHA's program elements: management leadership and employee participation, hazard information and reporting, job hazard analysis and control, training, MSD management, and program evaluation. You also must comply with the recordkeeping requirements. Finally, your program and controls must be set up and evaluated before the effective date of the standard; program elements must be working properly and controls must be in compliance.

"How do I conduct a job hazard analysis?"
If you have a problem - stemming from an employee's MSD report - you need to identify the ergonomic risk factors of that job. Watch employees perform the job to see what activities, conditions, and risk factors might contribute to the hazard. Get input from employees. Check the duration, frequency, and magnitude of exposure to the risk factors.

"Do I need a consultant to do this?"
Not according to OSHA. The agency says more than 1,500 employers and "stakeholders" have set up effective ergonomics programs on their own, using OSHA's 1990 Meatpacking Ergonomics Guidelines. OSHA also plans extensive compliance assistance materials to allow employers to set up programs themselves.

"How do I fix an ergonomic problem?"
OSHA estimates that it will cost $150 to fix each problem job. And the agency says you won't have to slow down production to be in compliance, nor automate processes. The proposed rule allows employers to decide the best way to control ergo hazards. There are no specifications for lifting limits or repetitions per minute; rather employers can select controls from a range of engineering, work practice, and administrative options. You must ask employees for their recommendations, and track progress toward eliminating or "materially reducing" the hazards.

"How do I know if a control works?"
You would be in compliance with requirements if your control solution:

  • Eliminates employee exposure to risk factors associated with the MSD, or reduces exposure to such a degree that a MSD is no longer likely to occur;
  • Reduces the duration, frequency, and/or magnitude of exposure so that the likelihood of the MSD occurring is significantly reduced;
  • Reduces hazards to the extent feasible. (You must continue to explore whether additional controls are feasible.)

"What if problems persist?"
If you put controls in place and continued exposure to hazards prevents the injured employee's condition from improving - or another MSD occurs in that job - you would implement additional feasible controls. No further controls are needed if the employee's condition improves and no additional cases occur. OSHA says that the occurrence of a MSD covered by the standard is not, in and of itself, a violation.

"What do I do for an employee with an MSD?"
Whenever an MSD covered under the standard occurs - and this also includes an employee with work-related symptoms that persist for more than seven days stemming from a job that you know involves an ergonomics hazard - you must respond quickly. Determine if work restrictions or other measures are needed, including evaluation by a health care professional. Workers placed on restricted duty must be paid 100 percent of their after-tax earnings until they either return to their job, controls reduce the risk of harm during recovery, or six months - whichever happens first. Workers who cannot work must receive 90 percent of their after-tax earnings. In both cases, workers must receive 100 percent of their benefits. You can offset the amount you pay out if the employee receives workers' compensation or other income. OSHA says pay protection is needed to ensure that employees don't hide MSD cases.

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Activities & Conditions*
Aspects of work that can contribute to ergonomic problems:

  • Repeating the same motion over and over
  • Exerting considerable effort to complete a motion
  • Constant motion without pauses or breaks
  • Sitting for a long time
  • Using hand and power tools
  • Long reaching motions
  • Working surfaces that are too high or too low
  • Vibrating work surfaces, machinery or vehicles
  • Gloves that are too bulky, too large or too small
  • Moving heavy people or objects
  • Moving people or objects a significant distance
  • Bending or twisting
  • Using hands as a hammer or clamp
  • Handling slippery objects, or objects with no handles
  • Working on slippery, sloped, or uneven floor surfaces

Signs & Symptoms*
Signs are objective physical findings that an employee may be developing a musculoskeletal disorder:

  • Decreased range of motion
  • Deformity
  • Decreased grip strength
  • Loss of function

Symptoms are physical indications of the same:

  • Numbness
  • Burning
  • Pain
  • Tingling
  • Cramping
  • Stiffness

Typical Ergo Fixes*

  • Adjusting heights of working surfaces
  • Putting supplies and tools within comfortable reach
  • Varying tasks for workers (rotating jobs)
  • Short rest breaks
  • Reducing the weight of lifted packages, etc.
  • Using mechanical lifts
  • Using telephone headsets
  • Providing ergonomic seating
  • Providing anti-fatigue floor mats