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  Ergonomics Committee Meets
By Rose Darby
OSHA Administrator John L. Henshaw, front row, second from left, joins members of the National Advisory Committee on Ergonomics to discuss strategies for reducing musculosketal disorders in the workplace.
In their first meeting, in January, members of the new OSHA National Advisory Committee on Ergonomics (NACE) rolled up their sleeves and got down to business to help reduce musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in the workplace.

The committee, made up of experts with a broad range of backgrounds and viewpoints about ergonomics, was formed to advise Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao and OSHA Administrator John L. Henshaw on a wide range of ergonomics issues over the next two years. Based on the charter that created the committee, NACE will lend expertise and advice on:
  • Ergonomics guidelines for various industries and job-related tasks,
  • Gaps in existing ergonomics research,
  • Current and projected research needs and efforts, and
  • Ways to communicate the value of ergonomics to employers and employees and to increasecommunication about ergonomics among OSHA stakeholders.
Henshaw opened the committee's first meeting by describing OSHA's four-pronged comprehensive approach to ergonomics: guidelines, enforcement, outreach and assistance, and research. He explained that although the enforcement prong is beyond the committee's scope, he looks forward to working with the committee on advancing the other prongs of the ergonomics strategy.

Steven Witt, director of OSHA's Directorate of Standards and Guidance, discussed his directorate's role in developing ergonomics guidelines. He described the agency's collaboration with stakeholders to develop the first set of guidelines, for nursing homes, as an "evolving process." The guidelines were released in March.

Following closely behind, Witt said, will be draft ergonomics guidelines for retail grocers, then poultry processors, then shipyards. The agency also will identify other industries and tasks for which the agency will develop ergonomics guidelines.

Richard Fairfax, director of OSHA's Directorate of Enforcement Programs, told the committee members that OSHA uses the general duty clause of the Occupational Safety and Health Act to enforce ergonomics-related violations. Fairfax said the agency plans to target companies for inspection by highlighting operations with high injury or illness rates, or as part of national or local emphasis programs. A current national emphasis program targets more than 1,000 nursing homes with more than 14 injuries and illnesses per 100 workers. In addition, several local emphasis programs currently target warehousing operations, hospitals, meatpacking plants, and auto parts manufacturing companies.

NACE membersPaula White, director of OSHA's Directorate of Cooperative and State Programs, explained that her directorate will provide general and guideline-specific outreach, assistance, tools, and support regarding ergonomics. The directorate produced an outreach plan for the ergonomics guidelines under development. Many of OSHA's partners in the Voluntary Protection Programs have effective ergonomics programs, White pointed out, and OSHA is using these programs as instructive models for other companies. In addition, she said OSHA has entered into numerous partnerships and alliances focused on protecting workers from musculoskeletal disorders.

John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and Tom Waters, a NIOSH researcher, talked to the group about gaps in research on ergonomics and MSDs. They cited a lack of studies on ergonomics on a national level and a lack of tools that incorporate physical and psychosocial factors when performing exposure assessments. They also noted a poor understanding of the interaction of ergonomic risk factors.

Henshaw challenged the committee to "reduce science to practice" and to identify areas that need more research. "We need strategies that a plant manager, a front-line supervisor, or a small business owner can readily adopt and use right now to prevent MSDs and help workers immediately," he said. JSHQ

Darby is a program analyst in OSHA's Directorate of Standards and Guidance, Washington, D.C.