"This document was published prior to the publication of OSHA's final rule on Ergonomics
Program (29 CFR 1910.900, November 14, 2000), and therefore does not necessarily
address or reflect the provisions set forth in the final standard."
Charles N. Jeffress
Ergonomics in the Workplace
September 29, 1999
- Ergonomics. What is it? Simply put, it's the science of fitting the job to the
- It's the solution to the problem of musculoskeletal disorders or MSDs. It's the
secret to higher productivity and job satisfaction. And it's the source of a lot of
controversy in Washington!
- Ergonomics is best defined as good business. Good ergonomics is good
economics. It's about working smarter and safer.
- It's about using equipment for lifting when possible, avoiding awkward postures
and eliminating excessive force. It's about protecting the body from unnecessary
wear and tear on the job. It's about reducing pain and increasing productivity.
That's good for workers and good for employers.
- You believe that ergonomics can make a difference in your workplace or you
wouldn't be here to learn more about it. Today, you'll have the benefit of hearing
from experts in a variety of fields who can help you find ways to prevent MSDs.
- Ergonomics is a very hot topic in Washington. But it's not a new issue. OSHA
has been concerned about MSDs for two decades. More than 15 years ago, we
began offering training on ergonomics. In the mid 1980's, we solicited comments
on ways to reduce problems associated with manual lifting.
- In the late 1980's we worked with the auto industry and meatpackers to address
injuries experienced by their workers. In 1990, we published ergonomic
guidelines for the red meat industry. Those guidelines are still in widespread use
- In 1991, OSHA was petitioned to develop an ergonomics standard as soon as
possible. In 1992, we began the rulemaking process in earnest. And in 1995,
when we released a draft standard to discuss with stakeholders, all hell broke
loose. Congress set riders on OSHA's budget for three years, prohibiting the
agency from issuing a proposed standard.
- Back to the drawing board. In 1997, we took a fresh look and decided to focus on
jobs where hazards are the most serious and where effective solutions are known.
Finding the problems is easy. Just look for jobs involving heavy lifting, repetitive
motion, excessive force, vibration, awkward posture or rapid hand and wrist
- Identifying solutions can be tougher. So we turned to the experts-successful
employers and employees, people like yourselves. Working with the National
Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, we held a national best practices
conference in Chicago, and over the past year or so, we've held 11 additional
regional best practices conferences to give employers and employees a forum to
network and exchange ideas. You'll be engaged in a similar session here today.
- While promoting education and training on this issue, OSHA has been working on
an ergonomics standard as well. In 1998, we met with people interested in
ergonomics in Washington, Kansas City, Atlanta and again in Washington to
discuss the foundations for a standard. This year, in February, we placed a draft
ergonomics proposal on our website. It generated a lot of public discussion.
- In early August, the House of Representatives voted to prohibit OSHA from
publishing a final standard until the National Academy of Sciences completes a
second review of the scientific literature on MSDs in spring 2001. The House
took this position despite an agreement among leaders in 1998 that the Academy
study would not preclude OSHA's moving forward. Even the scientist who
chaired the first Academy study says the evidence is more than sufficient for
OSHA to proceed with rulemaking. President Clinton has pledged to veto any
delaying legislation that might reach his desk.
- OSHA is committed to going ahead with an ergonomics standard. We plan to
publish our proposal in the Federal Register in the next few weeks.
- More than one-third of all serious occupational injuries and illnesses stem from
overexertion or repetition. That's more than 600,000 each year. These injuries
cost businesses $15 to $20 billion annually in workers' comp costs alone. Add
indirect costs, and the total mounts as high as $60 billion.
- The scientific evidence on addressing MSDs is clear and substantial. The jury is
IN on this issue. The verdict has been rendered: MSDs are linked to work, and we
can take steps to prevent them. Let's review what we already know.
- In 1997, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health conducted an
in-depth analysis of 600 epidemiologic studies. NIOSH found a strong association
between work and MSDs.
- In 1998, at the urging of Congress, the National Academy of Sciences completed a
similar study. That study verified that substantial sound scientific evidence links
back injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome and other MSDs to work. The Academy
concluded that workers who face high physical stress-such as heavy lifting and
repetitive motion-have high rates of MSDs. Further, the Academy pointed out that
most people face their main exposure to such physical stress on their jobs. But
even more importantly, the Academy noted "compelling evidence" that reducing
biomechanical stress on the job reduces the risk of injuries.
- In other words, there are real people in the workplace who need protection. They
suffer real problems -- sometimes very painful and disabling conditions. Their
employers suffer real problems, too -- billions in workers compensation costs and
lost productivity. And there are real solutions -- often easy and inexpensive ones,
sometimes more complex, but ultimately well worth the investment.
- Ergonomics is not just for the select few. We need to move beyond the 16 percent
of companies in the U.S. that have effective ergonomics programs. We need to
expand successful practices from the best companies to the rest of the companies.
- The best way to do that is through rulemaking. While we've faced some
opposition to our regulatory plans, we've also received considerable support.
There's a whole list of scientific, medical and professional organizations urging us
to move forward, including:
- the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine,
- the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons,
- the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses,
- the American Occupational Therapy Association
- the American Nurses Association,
- the American Public Health Association,
- the American Society of Safety Engineers,
- the American Industrial Hygiene Association,
- the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society,
- and the AFL-CIO and numerous international unions.
- Once our proposal is published in the Federal Register, we'll accept public
comments and hold hearings around the country in February and March of next
year. We will incorporate suggestions from the hearings, respond to all comments
and publish a final rule by the end of the year 2000, provided that Congress
doesn't once again prohibit us from acting.
- OSHA's proposal focuses on jobs where injuries are high and solutions are well
demonstrated. Employers in general industry with workers involved in production
operations in manufacturing or manual handling will automatically be covered.
About 60 percent of all MSDs occur in manufacturing and manual handling.
- Beyond these two areas, an employer with an employee who has experienced an
MSD will need to look at that employee's job and similar jobs to determine if
there are hazards. If hazards exist, the employer needs to control them. Here we
are talking about grocery store cashiers, individuals doing intensive computer work
or people sorting mail in post offices-jobs that are not well reflected in the data
but where there are real problems and suffering people.
- Let me make it clear, we're not talking about sore wrists or stiff muscles here.
We're talking about painful, potentially disabling injuries. These injuries are not
inevitable. They're not just a part of growing older. And they're not caused by
playing tennis or golf on the weekends. And you know what they are, because you've
seen them among your workers.
- It just makes sense. If you have workers who are getting hurt, you need to analyze
why. Then you need to find a solution that works in your workplace. And that,
very simply, is what OSHA's ergonomics proposal requires. If someone gets hurt,
analyze why, and take action to prevent it happening again. We are not
prescribing an exact course of action or a "one-size-fits all" solution. We're
saying tailor your solution to the needs of your workplace.
- Part of the reason we've chosen this approach has been what we've learned from
employers and employees during our stakeholder meetings and at best practices
conferences. Employers who've developed effective ergonomics programs tell us
that's the approach they use. We've based our proposal on existing good industry
practices-interventions that businesses are actually using, that have been proven
effective in protecting workers. Employers told us they use our red meat
guidelines, and we've drawn heavily on those guidelines in developing this
- It's important to avoid getting drawn into some silly debate on numbers. No one
will ever be able to say that X number of repetitions or lifting X pounds will result
in injury or conversely that Y number of repetitions or Y pounds will definitely
NOT result in injury for anyone, any time, anywhere. However, many employers
have proven that establishing a systematic program to address such issues as
repetition, excessive force, awkward postures and heavy lifting results in fewer
injuries to workers.
- Some people who don't like this program approach say it's too vague, that
compliance officers will have too much discretion and will be able to cite anyone
for anything. Ironically, these are the same folks who object to "one-size-fits-all"
specification standards. OSHA's critics can't have it both ways. A program
approach offers employers the framework for addressing specific high risk areas
and then handling other problems as they arise. It's the right way to go to provide
needed protection for workers while providing maximum flexibility for employers.
- Those who have already addressed ergonomics are ahead of the game. We want to
recognize and reward their efforts. OSHA's proposal will include a grandfather
clause for ergonomics programs that have been proven effective in reducing
MSDs. If you meet the basic obligations identified in the standard, you're all set.
If you start building an ergonomics program today, you know that your efforts to
begin now won't be wasted.
- The six basic elements of an ergonomics program named in the February draft are:
1) management leadership and employee participation, 2) hazard identification and
information, 3) job hazard analysis and control, 4) training, 5) medical
management and 6) program evaluation. There will be some modifications and
changes in terminology in the proposal published this fall. But programs that
include these elements will be on target.
- While OSHA is focusing on general industry, NIOSH has taken the lead in the
shipyard industry with a three-year project to study ergonomic risks in the ship
building and ship repair industry. Others are studying problems and solutions in
construction. OSHA will need to act in both of these areas after the general
industry standard is issued.
- I hope you will all participate in our rulemaking. We welcome your written
comments and or your personal testimony at one of our public hearings.
We want to develop a practical, flexible rule-one that makes sense for each of
your workplaces. We welcome your thoughtful, constructive recommendations.
- I want to commend you for taking time to attend this conference-for recognizing
the serious problem that MSDs pose and taking advantage of the opportunity to
find ergonomic solutions that are right for your business. And I want to encourage
you to work with us as we move forward in addressing ergonomics.
- Ergonomics programs work. They reduce injuries. They improve employee
morale. And they save money for employers
- When employers protect workers, they also improve profits. That makes
ergonomics truly a win-win proposition.