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  Protecting Workers from Ergonomic Injuries
OSHA's comprehensive plan features targeted
guidelines and tough enforcement.
photo: computer mouseOSHA's recently unveiled ergonomics plan offers a comprehensive, practical approach to reducing ergonomic injuries that, according to OSHA Administrator John L. Henshaw, "we can put to work now-and that will reduce injuries now." The plan combines industry-specific guidelines, tough enforcement measures, outreach, research, and dedicated efforts to protect Hispanic and other immigrant workers. "Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are serious injuries, and we are committed to reducing the pain and suffering that occur from workplace injuries," says Henshaw. "This comprehensive plan is the best approach to achieve immediate results."

"Our goal is to help workers by reducing ergonomic injuries in the shortest possible time frame," agrees Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao. "This plan is a major improvement over the rejected old rule because it will prevent ergonomics injuries before they occur and reach a much larger number of at-risk workers."

The new plan reflects input from a wide range of stakeholders, including organized labor, workers, medical experts, and businesses. Over the last year, the Department of Labor conducted three major public forums around the country and met with scores of stakeholders, collecting hundreds of sets of written comments and taking testimony from 100 speakers. OSHA analyzed and evaluated the comments and recommendations, studied the options, and researched the alternatives.

Henshaw says OSHA will work with various stakeholders and develop industry- and task-specific guidelines that ensure prevention, flexibility, and feasibility. "We can move forward rapidly on this and we will have guidelines this year," he says. Photo: John L. Henshaw

OSHA will target industries and tasks where Henshaw says "we can have the quickest and most effective results." The agency will begin its efforts by focusing on industries and tasks associated with ergonomic injuries and for which successful strategies are known. "Real-life solutions come from real-life experience," notes Henshaw.

This approach, he believes, will offer employers and workers the flexibility they need to tailor recommendations and best practices to their workplaces.

"We know that one size does not fit all, and this provides the flexibility needed to reduce injuries," Henshaw says.

The Department of Labor will develop an ergonomics enforcement plan coordinating inspections with a legal strategy designed for successful prosecution. The department will place special emphasis on industries with serious ergonomic injuries. OSHA and DOL attorneys will build on experience where they have had success under the Occupational Safety and Health Act's General Duty Clause.

For the first time, OSHA will have a successful enforcement strategy designed from the start to target ergonomics violations. In addition, Henshaw says the agency will have special ergonomics teams that work closely with DOL attorneys and handpicked experts "to crack down on bad actors."

Outreach and Assistance
OSHA plans to offer assistance to workers and businesses, particularly small businesses, to help them address ergonomics in the workplace. The agency will offer advice and training on industry- and task-specific guidelines it develops and help on how to develop an effective ergonomics program.

In addition, OSHA will provide a wealth of materials on its website, support development of ergonomic training materials and training sessions, and make ergonomics training available though the 12 Education Centers around the country. The new plan includes a specialized focus to help Hispanic and other immigrant workers, many of whom work in industries with high ergonomic injury rates.

OSHA also plans to develop new recognition programs to highlight the achievements of worksites with exemplary or novel approaches to ergonomics.

Goals of the Plan
  • Decrease ergonomic hazards.
  • Reduce injuries and illnesses.
  • Ensure flexibility and encourage innovation.
  • Help employers prevent MSDs

Building on Proven Success: Decline in Ergonomic-Related Injuries
Involving Days Away from Work, 1992-1999
Decline in Ergonomic-related injuries - click here for text version and full size image
Click here for text version and full size image
Finally, the agency will provide its compliance officers with training on ergonomic hazards and abatement methods. It will designate 10 regional ergonomics coordinators who will be involved in enforcement, outreach, and assistance.

The new plan includes an important research component because, Henshaw says, "We want to use the best available science in all that we do." He says information from the National Academy of Sciences and from OSHA's ergonomics forums made it clear that many gaps remain. OSHA will establish a national advisory committee, representing a broad range of experts, to advise the agency on gaps in ergonomics and effective prevention techniques. In concert with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the committee will help OSHA serve as a catalyst to expand current research on the subject.

Henshaw says the new plan is designed to accelerate an encouraging workplace trend as quickly as possible. "Bureau of Labor Statistics' data show that musculoskeletal disorders are already on the decline," he says. "Thousands of employers are already working to reduce ergonomic risks without government mandates. We want to work with them to continuously improve workplace safety and health. We will go after the bad actors who refuse to take care of their workers."

The new plan was announced barely a year after Congress rejected the previous administration's ergonomics rule. That rule was denounced broadly as being excessively burdensome and complicated. For more information visit OSHA's website at

OSHA's Plan
  • Industry- and task-specific guidelines
  • Enforcement
  • Outreach and assistance
  • Research

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an "ergonomic injury"?
Ergonomic injuries often are described by the term "musculoskeletal disorders" or "MSDs." This refers to injuries and illnesses that affect the musculoskeletal system; there is no single diagnosis for MSDs.

Input from recent ergonomics forums demonstrated the wide variety of opinions on how OSHA should define an ergonomic injury and that the definition depends on the context. As OSHA develops guidance material for specific industries, the agency may narrow the definition as appropriate to address the specific workplace hazards covered. OSHA will work closely with stakeholders to develop definitions for MSDs as part of its overall effort to develop guidance materials.

Are all MSDs work-related?
No. MSDs can and do develop outside the workplace. Determining whether any particular MSD is workrelated may require taking a careful history of the patient and the illness, conducting a thorough medical examination, and characterizing factors on and off the job that may have caused or contributed to the MSD.

How do you expect OSHA's guidelines to reduce injuries and illnesses related to MSDs?
Injuries and illnesses related to MSDs have declined consistently during the last 10 years, even without a standard addressing them. Guidelines such as OSHA's Meatpacking Guidelines and voluntary industry efforts have been successful in reducing the injury and illness rates for these disorders. For example, on a national basis, lost-workday rates for carpal tunnel injuries declined 39 percent from 1992 to 1999. Similarly, rates for strains and sprains with days away from work also have declined by 39 percent, and rates for back injuries have dropped 45 percent.

In the meatpacking industry, with industry-specific guidelines and focused OSHA enforcement, rates of carpal tunnel injuries with days away from work have dropped 47 percent from 1992 to 1999. At the same time, rates of strains and sprains with days away from work have gone down 61 percent, and rates for back injuries have decreased by 64 percent. OSHA expects that industry- or task-specific guidelines will reduce injuries and illnesses further.

What is a guideline and how does it differ from a standard?
A guideline is a tool to help employers recognize and control hazards. It is voluntary. Failure to implement a guideline is not itself a violation of the General Duty Clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Guidelines that OSHA develops will help employers identify ergonomic hazards in their workplaces and implement feasible measures to control them.

Guidelines are more flexible than standards. They can be developed quickly and can be changed easily as new information becomes available with scientific advances. Guidelines make it easier for employers to adopt innovative programs to suit their workplaces, rather than inflexible, one-size-fits-all solutions to issues that may be unique to the industry or facility.

What if I am an employer in an industry for which OSHA does not develop industry-specific guidelines?
Even if there are no guidelines specific to your industry, as an employer you still have an obligation to keep your workplace free from recognized serious hazards, including ergonomic hazards. OSHA will cite for ergonomic hazards under the General Duty Clause or issue ergonomic hazard letters where appropriate as part of its overall enforcement program. OSHA encourages employers to implement effective programs or other measures to reduce ergonomic hazards and associated MSDs. A great deal of information is currently available from OSHA, NIOSH, and various industry and labor organizations on how to establish an effective ergonomics program, and OSHA urges employers to use these resources.

What will the OSHA enforcement program entail?
OSHA will conduct inspections for ergonomic hazards and issue citations under the General Duty Clause and issue ergonomic hazard alert letters. The agency will conduct follow-up inspections or investigations within 12 months of certain employers who receive ergonomic hazard alert letters.

OSHA has been assessing MSDrelated issues in complaints, referrals, and targeted inspections. The agency will continue to evaluate the findings of its inspections and issue General Duty Clause citations or hazard alert letters for ergonomics hazards as neccessary. OSHA will do the same when responding to worker complaints.

In addition, OSHA has initiated a national emphasis program in the nursing home industry to guide inspections of nursing homes and to focus significant effort on addressing ergonomic hazards related to patient lifting.

OSHA will conduct specialized training of appropriate staff on ergonomic hazards and abatement methods and designate 10 regional ergonomic coordinators to be involved in enforcement and outreach.